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$5-a-gallon gas is a wake-up call. Let's change the way oil companies operate here.

How can a power outage at a refinery spark $5-a-gallon gasoline at some L.A. stations? Why would the fact that California had to switch to the winter-blend fuel at the end of October — a fact known all year — raise gasoline prices to record levels?

This price surge is not a freak phenomenon or the result of a convergence of refinery problems, as the oil industry has argued. It's happened before (only the $5 level is new) and will happen again and again because California oil companies can make more money by making less gasoline.

California's under-regulated gasoline market resembles our briefly deregulated electricity grid during 2000-01, when energy pirates such as Enron manipulated prices. Why? The market is geared to shortages and scarcity. So when an inevitable problem occurs to shock the system, such as a refinery outage or pipeline problem, gasoline prices and company profits go through the roof in tandem.

The state's gasoline, the lifeblood of our economy, is priced by an under-regulated commodities market largely controlled by a handful of companies. Over the last decade, Californians have consistently paid prices that are 10 to 20 cents a gallon higher than the rest of the nation, and we have lower inventories. The rest of the continental U.S. has about 24 days of gasoline on hand; California's average is 10 to 13 days. Not surprisingly, over the last 10 years, refineries on the West Coast consistently have been among the most profitable in the continental U.S.

Memos from West Coast oil refiners from the 1990s and released years ago by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) suggest that this is a deliberate business strategy. An internal Chevron memo, for example, stated: "A senior energy analyst at the recent API [American Petroleum Institute] convention warned that if the U.S. petroleum industry doesn't reduce its refining capacity, it will never see any substantial increase in refinery margins." It then discussed how major refiners were closing down refineries. Oil company profit reports show each dramatic gasoline price spike over the last decade has been mirrored by a corresponding corporate profit spike.

This situation is well known to policymakers in California. About a decade ago, after some sharp, unexpected price hikes, then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer formed a gas pricing task force that included industry experts and me. We viewed industry documents and cross-examined industry representatives. Among the conclusions: "Supply disruptions that contributed to major price spikes of 1999 are likely to continue … because (1) California refiners have little spare capacity to cover outages; (2) California refiners maintain relatively low inventory levels." The report also noted: "Refiners have significant market control."

The task force recommended a series of measures, including building a strategic gasoline reserve that could flood the market when supply is most scarce. But the Legislature didn't listen. And now we are near 5 bucks a gallon.

There's a simple policy fix to the gasoline woes in California: more regulation and less consolidation.

If the state doesn't have the wherewithal to build a strategic gasoline reserve, a simple requirement that refiners keep at least three weeks of inventory on hand will do.

Rapid oil company consolidation has also been a driver of high gas prices. A handful of refiners control 14 state refineries. It had gotten so ludicrous that in 2005, my consumer group teamed up with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Lockyer and succeeded in getting Shell Oil to reverse its decision to bulldoze its Bakersfield refinery, and to instead sell it. Internal documents showed that the refinery was making among the highest profits of all Shell refineries. That indicated the company wanted to make supplies even tighter, driving prices artificially higher.

The greatest challenge for competition may be ahead. Tesoro is seeking to buy the low-cost Arco brand and its California assets from BP. More than 800 stations carry the Arco brand. If state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and federal regulators approve the merger, two refiners — Chevron and Tesoro — will control 51% of the refining capacity in the state. That would be like writing a blank check from California drivers to the oil industry.

Let's hope that $5-a-gallon gasoline is a wake-up call that came in time to head off greater refinery consolidation and higher prices. Fourteen refineries now power the world's ninth-largest economy. It's time Sacramento stepped in to keep them running at full speed, producing enough inventory to fuel the state, and from falling into even fewer corporate hands.

Jamie Court is the president of Consumer Watchdog and author of "The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws and Get the Change We Voted For."

First printed in the October 12, 2012 edition of the Los Angeles Times

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