State air pollution regulators said Monday that California's air quality is not expected to worsen appreciably after the governor ordered the release of a dirtier blend of gasoline to help slash record-high pump prices.
The California Air Resources Board issued a regulatory advisory after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered them to allow "winter-blend" gasoline to be sold in California earlier than usual to increase supply.
AAA said the average price for a gallon of regular hit $4.668 Monday in California — the highest price in the nation and an all-time high for the Golden State. Around Modesto, gas could be found for $4.29 at the Costco in Turlock, for $4.32 at a Stop and Save on Oakdale Road and $4.37 at the Stop and Save on Coffee Road and several area Arco stations.
Analysts said the spike has been driven by refinery disruptions and corrosion issues in an important pipeline.
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"This action is necessary to address the extreme and unusual fuel supply circumstance," said the board's advisory allowing the use of the more polluting fuel. "(It) is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety or general welfare."
California usually converts to the winter-gas blend Oct. 31. The fuel evaporates in heat more quickly than summer blends, so sends more pollutants into the environment, especially in warm weather.
Gil Duran, a spokesman for Brown, said the governor looked at all the options available, particularly scientists' prediction that such a change would not have a significant effect on the environment and "when he learned this could increase the supply by 8 to 10 percent, it just made sense."
Sunday's action was the first time since 2005 — when gas supplies were affected by refinery disruptions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — that the air board has approved early conversion to winter-gas blends.
Officials said it could take days before prices fall, depending on how quickly refineries can get the winter-blend fuel to market.
"The gasoline market moves on news, and this is clearly good news in terms of supply, because it should be able to increase supply immediately," said Alison apRoberts, a spokeswoman with the California Energy Commission.
FTC asked to investigate
The third day of record-setting prices at the pump has prompted calls for a federal investigation.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, saying residents need to be protected from "malicious trading schemes."
Spokesmen for the FTC in Washington didn't return calls seeking comment.
Feinstein in her letter Sunday asked the FTC to determine if the price spike was caused by illegal manipulation of the market and to start monitoring the market for fraud, manipulation and other malicious trading practices.
"Publicly available data appears to confirm that market fundamentals are not to blame for rising gas prices in California," she wrote.
Despite a pipeline and refinery shutdown, she said, state data shows gas production last week was "almost as high as a year ago, and stockpiles of gasoline and blending components combined were equal to this time last year," she said.
Ian Godfrey of Modesto said he drove back to Hughson on Monday morning after seeing a sign advertising gas for $3.79 a gallon Sunday. Although he needed to head the other way — to a doctor's appointment in Stockton — "I figured it would be totally worth it to save a dollar (per gallon)," he said.
But the advertisement was too good to be true; Godfrey said the store clerk told him the sign was malfunctioning.
Responding to a post on The Bee's Facebook page, Matt Hackett said he has started commuting by motorcycle. Jorge Hernandez said he leaves earlier for work and drives more slowly.
In some cities, fuming motorists paid $5 or more per gallon while station owners had to shut down pumps in others.
A station in Long Beach south of Los Angeles had California's priciest gas at $6.65 for a gallon of regular, GasBuddy.com said. Meanwhile, customers at an outlet in San Pablo north of Oakland paid $3.49, the lowest.
Winter-blend gas typically isn't sold until after Oct. 31, when lower temperatures typically allow for its use while maintaining federal and state air quality standards. Few refineries outside the state are making summer-blend gas, putting the pressure on already-taxed California manufacturers.
Still, the air board said it believed that changing over a few weeks earlier than normal would not push California's air pollution beyond normal levels for this time of year.
Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra contributed to this report.