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Senator questions why refineries cut production

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Senator questions oil productionWest Coast oil refiners cut gasoline production after a fire earlier this year at a Washington state refinery, creating a supply shortage that’s left West Coast motorists now paying very high prices at a time when the rest of the nation is seeing prices plunge, according to an influential senator and a veteran energy analyst.

In a letter being sent to regulators on Thursday and obtained by McClatchy, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., calls on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate refinery operators Alon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Tesoro and BP following the shutdown of BP’s Cherry Point refinery in Washington State.

Citing a report by Portland energy consultant McCullough Research – a group whose work helped topple energy-trading giant Enron Corp. – Cantwell questioned why May gasoline prices in her state soared recently to within cents of the local record of $4.35 a gallon set in July 2008. Meantime, gasoline prices nationwide in May fell 17 cents a gallon and oil tumbled more than $14 a barrel.

The McCullough Research report, published Tuesday, questioned whether the historically low gasoline inventories on the West Coast were really a result of a fire on Feb. 17 that idled the BP plant for about three months.

Gasoline prices on the West Coast had tracked closely with the price of West Texas intermediate crude delivered at Cushing, Okla., but in May veered widely from historical norms, according to the report. Had prices followed supply costs, said the report’s author, Robert McCullough, retail gasoline prices on the West Coast would have dropped to about $3.65 a gallon. Instead, prices have been about 68 cents higher.

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