California Gasoline Imports Set To Rise, Experts Say

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May 5 (Reuters) – Shipments of gasoline that meets California's strict environmental standards are expected to rise in the coming weeks thanks to the start of summer driving season and ongoing repairs at a key refinery, experts said on Tuesday.

The state is currently importing more than 40,000 barrels per day of gasoline by tanker vessel from other states and countries, said David Hackett, president of oil logistic company Stillwater Associates.

But more will be needed to keep the state's already nation-leading pump prices in check, he said.

"There's a fleet headed this way," Hackett said, echoing sentiments expressed by gasoline traders on Tuesday.

Reduced output from Exxon Mobil's Los Angeles-area refinery in Torrance after an explosion and fire rocked the plant in February has proved a major setback for in-state supply.

Jeff Stevens, chief executive of Western Refining, said on Tuesday that Torrance will not reach full production levels again until late 2015 or early 2016.

Outside of California's 14 refineries, only a handful of other U.S. facilities make California's special blend of gasoline. Those that do, like refineries in Louisiana and Texas, often find it too difficult and costly to send the gasoline to California thanks to legal constraints on the types of vessels that can carry the fuel.

Instead, California is more likely to get its shipments from Canada, Europe, South Korean and Saudi Arabia, all of which have refineries capable of making the gasoline.

Pump prices in the Golden State currently lead the nation, according to The average California price for regular stood at $3.71 a gallon on Tuesday, up 28 cents from the week-ago price and more than a dollar over the national average.

The current large price disparity between California and U.S. prices will continue to make the California market an attractive destination for out-of-state fuel producers, traders said.

While that might be good news for oil companies, the situation is dire for California drivers, said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

His groups released a report on Tuesday arguing that oil refineries have made large profits from recent gasoline price spikes.

"The proof is in the oil companies' own profit reports," he said, pointing to above average first quarter profits for refining companies in the state, when prices rose at a record pace. Court argues that oil companies should be required to keep more gasoline in stockpiles in case a refinery goes down.

(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Diane Craft)

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