WASHINGTON, D.C. — Oil refineries across the country have been plagued
by a record number of fires, power failures, leaks, spills, and breakdowns this year, causing dozens of them to shut down temporarily or trim production. The disruptions are helping to drive gasoline prices to highs not seen since last summer's records.
These mechanical breakdowns, which one analyst likened to an "invisible hurricane," have created a bottleneck in domestic energy supplies, helping to push up gasoline prices 50 cents this year to well above $3 a gallon. A third of the country's 150 refineries have reported disruptions to their operations since the beginning of the year, a record according to analysts.
There have been blazes at refineries in Louisiana, Texas, Indiana, and California, some of them caused by lightning strikes. Plants have suffered power losses that disrupted operations; a midsize refinery in Kansas was flooded by torrential rains last month.
American refiners are running roughly 5% below their normal levels at this time of the year. "You have a system that is taxed to the limit," said Adam Robinson, an energy research analyst at Lehman Brothers. "This is what happens when spare capacity is eroded."
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted the nation's energy lifeline two years ago, oil companies delayed maintenance on many of their plants to make up for lost supplies and take advantage of the high prices. But, analysts say, they are now paying a price for deferring repairs.
As a whole, refining disruptions have been considerably higher than in previous years: they averaged 1.5 million barrels a day in the first quarter, compared with 700,000 to 900,000 barrels a day from 2001 to 2005. In the days after the hurricanes, refiners were forced to briefly halt as many as five million barrels of production. In 2006, when refiners were still reeling from the impact of the hurricanes, disruptions in the first quarter averaged 1.35 million barrels a day.
Many factors have led to the rise in gas prices, including disruptions in oil supplies from places like Nigeria and Norway. But analysts say the refining bottleneck in North America has been one of the main drivers of higher energy prices this year.
Some critics of the industry have theorized on Internet blogs that the squeeze on gasoline and other refined products points to a deliberate effort among oil companies to bolster profits by keeping supplies tight. But experts point out that the companies have little incentive right now to hold back on fuel supplies.
"Every refinery would like to run as much crude as possible but they simply can't," said David Greely, senior energy economist at Goldman Sachs, who in a recent report compared the drop in domestic refining with an "invisible hurricane." "These are more complex systems. There are more chances for things to go wrong. And when things go wrong, they tend to back up the system."
Meanwhile, refiners have been scrambling to meet a raft of environmental regulations, phase out toxic additives, add ethanol to the fuel mix, and introduce new ultralow sulfur standards for gasoline and diesel. Industry insiders attribute much of the fragility of refining operations to the difficulty of making these cleaner fuels.
Meanwhile, demand has been rising relentlessly, providing little respite to the nation's aging energy infrastructure. Even as consumers complain loudly about high prices, they show no signs of scaling back. Gasoline consumption reached 9.66 million barrels a day in the first week of July, the second-highest level on record.
Source: New York Times