SAN FRANCISCO -- The same federal investigators who probed the Gulf Coast oil spill were waiting Thursday for access to the charred crude oil unit of a Chevron refinery where a fire has helped push gas prices close to $4 a gallon along the West Coast after sending a towering plume of black smoke into San Francisco Bay area skies.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board team was waiting with state and company inspectors to do structural and environmental tests to see if it was safe to enter the unit and determine when production might resume after the Monday night blaze.
"This is an important accident in its own right, it was a large fire and has the potential to affect fuel supplies and prices," said Dr. Daniel Horowitz, a member of the chemical board. "And there are community concerns which we'll also be evaluating, including the emergency response system."
The average price of regular gasoline jumped in California from $3.86 a gallon on Tuesday to $3.94 on Thursday, according to the website GasBuddy.com.
Some experts expect the disruption in production to last for weeks and push prices beyond $4 a gallon.
"It'll depend on Chevron getting their facility repaired," said Patrick DeHaan of GasBuddy.com. "The increases will be felt in California, Oregon and Washington, with perhaps some residual issues in Arizona and other nearby states."
The Richmond refinery produces 16 percent of the region's daily gasoline supply. The fire knocked out a unit that makes a specialized blend of cleaner burning gasoline that satisfies air quality laws in California, Oregon and Washington.
Sean Comey, a spokesman for Chevron, said myriad factors were pushing gas prices higher, not just the loss of one unit at the refinery.
"The fire at our Richmond refinery is only one factor influencing prices," he said. "There are a variety of economic conditions like rising crude and ethanol costs, which also effect what consumers pay at the pump."