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Smoke and flame billow from a crude oil unit at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., on Monday. The facility makes high-quality products that include gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel and lubricants, as well as chemicals used to manufacture many other useful products.

Calif. refinery fire will boost gas prices

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RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) -- A major fire at one of the country's biggest oil refineries that sent hundreds of people to hospitals with complaints of breathing problems will push gas prices above $4 a gallon on the West Coast, analysts said Tuesday.

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The fire, which sent plumes of black smoke over the San Francisco Bay area, erupted Monday evening in the massive Chevron refinery about 10 miles northeast of San Francisco. It was out early Tuesday.

The West Coast is particularly vulnerable to spikes in gasoline prices because it's not well-connected to the refineries along the Gulf Coast, where most of the country's refining capacity is located, analysts say.

The Chevron refinery is particularly big and important to the West Coast market, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service.

It produces about 150,000 barrels of gasoline a day -- 16 percent of the region's daily gasoline consumption of 963,000 barrels, he said.

California's average price Tuesday for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.86. But with inventories in the region already low compared with the rest of the country, pump prices along the West Coast will soon average more than $4 a gallon, Kloza said.

Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram said he did not have an update on when the refinery could be restarted and declined to comment on what kind of impact the shutdown might have on the gasoline market.

"Spot prices have already increased by as much as 30 cents per gallon in some West Coast markets and that's before the refinery damage has been fully assessed," said analyst Patrick DeHaan of the website GasBuddy.com.

The fire began around 6:15 p.m. Monday in the refinery's No. 4 Crude Unit, about two hours after a vapor leak of hydrocarbons

similar to diesel, said Heather Kulp, a Chevron spokeswoman.

"At approximately 6:30 p.m., the volume increased and personnel evacuated the area," she said at a news conference. "The hydrocarbon vapor then ignited and a fire occurred."

Kulp said there were no explosions, and staff at the refinery initiated an emergency response immediately after the fire started. The cause is under investigation.

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