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Gasoline price declines in California pick up speed

California's average for a gallon of self-serve regular falls 19.1 cents in a week to $4.432, compared with a drop of less than 4 cents the previous week.

October 22, 2012|By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times

The decline in California gasoline prices has accelerated in recent days, fuel surveys show, but hardly amounts to the relief from record fuel costs that most motorists would like to see.

The state average reached $4.432 for a gallon of self-serve regular gasoline, the Energy Department said Monday. That was a decline of 19.1 cents in one week, according to the agency's survey of service stations. The week before, the average slipped less than 4 cents a gallon after reaching a record $4.659.

A separate survey by AAA found a similar pattern, placing the state's average pump price at $4.427 a gallon, down 18.2 cents from a week earlier. The week before, the average declined about 6 cents. On its way up to a record average of $4.671 a gallon Oct. 9, the state's gasoline prices jumped 17.1 cents in just one night.

"Prices are down some, but they are still a lot higher than they were last year, and the 2011 prices were already a record for this time of year," said Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

San Fernando resident Bart Reed said he just spent $75 to fill his car's gas tank, up from $60 before the price surge.

"That doesn't feel like relief," said Reed, who runs a nonprofit advocacy group called the Transit Coalition.

The California Energy Commission said that the price surge was due in part to a power outage that shut down Exxon Mobil's Torrance refinery at a time when the state was near five-year lows in refinery production and fuel supplies.

Barring another refinery problem, analysts are predicting steady price declines.

"My forecast calls for gasoline prices in Los Angeles/Long Beach to slowly decrease between now and Thanksgiving about $1 per gallon, to $3.60 per gallon," independent fuel price specialist Bob van der Valk said.

Meanwhile, there were rumors that another big player in the California refinery market might be looking to exit the state. The Wall Street Journal reported late Friday that Valero Energy Corp. was looking to sell at least two of the refineries it operates in California.

The San Antonio company has a 132,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Benicia, Calif., and a 78,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Wilmington. Both of those facilities produce gasoline and diesel for the California market.

Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst for Oppenheimer & Co., said Valero might be looking for buyers because of a looming regulatory requirement in California that will mandate that refinery emissions match 1990 levels by 2020.

But a Valero spokesman said the company hasn't said anything about the possibility of selling since 2011, when company officials said they were considering their options on what to do with the refineries.

"Basically, it's just rumors, and it's our policy not to discuss unsubstantiated media accounts," spokesman Bill Day said. The 2020 regulations, Day added, "will be very costly to our business and to California consumers."

Valero also owns a small refinery in Wilmington that produces asphalt.

Valero shares closed Monday at $29.47, down 6 cents.

In August, BP announced its intention to sell its Carson refinery and other some other California assets to Tesoro Corp. for $2.5 billion.

ron.white@latimes.com

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