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BP’s Whiting Refinery | Jim Karczewski/for Sun-Times Media

Editorial: Washington’s job to assure refineries don’t break down

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That price you see on your Chicago area gasoline pump is more closely tied to the operational health of three local refineries — not world oil prices — than many people realize.

When one of the refineries has a breakdown, as just happened at BP’s Northwest Indiana refinery in Whiting, prices at our local pumps shoot up. After the Whiting disruption, prices in Chicago were as much as 80 cents a gallon higher than the national average.

Disruptions like this should never happen. They can depress an entire regional economy. As long as fossil fuels remain an important part of our nation’s energy mix, the federal government has an obligation to make sure refineries have sufficient incentives to keep up maintenance and repairs, and adequate supply lines.

Industry experts say Chicago is fortunate to be so close to three refineries: Whiting, ExxonMobil‘s in Joliet and Citgo’s in Lemont. But — situated far from the supplies of imported petroleum on the coasts — Chicago filling stations are at a disadvantage if a refinery breaks down. Extra supplies of the special summer reformulated gasoline Chicago is required to use under federal clean-air rules must come a long and expensive distance.

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As the Labor Day driving weekend nears, the Whiting plant is up and running again, and refineries are preparing to switch to making the winter blend. Pump prices are coming down. But Whiting wasn’t the only plant to experience trouble recently. Refineries around the nation have been delaying routine maintenance as they run at a gallop to catch up with bulging supplies of crude oil and growing demand for gasoline, according to industry reports.

Other unplanned shutdowns occurred this year at Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery in Downstate Robinson, an Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, Calif., a fluid catalytic cracking unit owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions, and Shell Deer Park’s jet/diesel unit near Houston. In autumn, more capacity than normal may be shut down as companies try to catch up with repairs.

As the nation continues a slow transition to renewable energy, its need for a vast network refineries will decline. But until then, it’s bad at the gas pump — and bad for America — when refineries keep breaking down.

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