Fuel mix being blamed for Exxon problems

ExxonMobil officials are blaming a problem with 5 million gallons of fuel shipped from its Baton Rouge terminal in mid-March on a reaction caused by mixing different blends of gasoline together, a state official said Friday.

Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain said he met with Exxon officials for about an hour Friday afternoon to discuss the investigation into what in the fuel is causing the intake and valve systems of vehicles to gum up.

“They tested the hydrocarbon mix, and all the tests are normal,” Strain said. “But for some reason, it resulted in one type of reaction … It may be a mixture of the gasoline in some form or fashion that caused this.”

Exxon officials said they have identified an “atypical variation” in the fuel in two batches of regular unleaded gasoline produced between March 12 and March 15. The two batches had a total of 120,000 barrels of gasoline. A barrel is 42 gallons of fuel. The company has not observed the variation in batches currently being produced at its Baton Rouge refinery.

“Exxon has no experience with this before,” Strain said.

Exxon and Strain have said the gasoline currently being sold at Baton Rouge stations is safe to purchase because the tainted fuel has long been diluted. Large, busy gas stations get their fuel tanks filled up every day, while smaller stations get gasoline every two to four days.

“Our hope is that there are no further new problems,” Strain said.

To date, 48 people from metro Baton Rouge and Lafayette have contacted Strain’s office about problems with bad fuel. Drivers have complained about their vehicles being difficult to start first thing in the morning or the car running rough. In extreme cases, the vehicles have been unable to start.

The severity of the problem is determined by the amount of fuel in the vehicle and the condition of the engine.

Strain said the problems have been confined to motorists who bought regular unleaded gas. Drivers who buy midgrade gasoline, which is a 50/50 blend of regular and premium fuel mixed at the pump, haven’t seen any problems.

In some cases, drivers have been able to clear out the problems with gummed intake and valve systems by filling up with new gasoline or using fuel additives, Strain said.

Exxon is encouraging drivers who have questions or concerns about their fuel to call North America Customer Care toll free at (855) 300-2659.

The company said there are claims representatives in Baton Rouge working directly with consumers who bought the bad fuel.

“All fuel products currently being made available by ExxonMobil in the market meet Louisiana’s stringent regulatory requirements and are safe for use in vehicles,” the company said in a statement.

Exxon’s Baton Rouge terminal gasoline loading racks have been shut down since Wednesday, while the investigation is continuing.

Exxon supplies about half of the gasoline sold in metro Baton Rouge. Even though the terminal has shut down for several days, the fuel supply in the city hasn’t been affected.

“We haven’t missed a beat,” said Johnny Milazzo, owner of Lard Oil Co. in Denham Springs. “There have been no interruptions in service.” Lard Oil distributes about 100 million gallons of Exxon gasoline a year across Louisiana, with the vast majority of the fuel going to Baton Rouge-area stores.

ExxonMobil has exchange agreements with refineries in other parts of the state, which allows distributors such as Lard to get fuel from other sources in case of a shutdown or natural disaster. “There’s no concerns of any kind that there will be a shortage,” Milazzo said.

Exxon has been referring some customers to the Placid Refinery in Port Allen as a source for gasoline during the current shutdown.

Rafael Bermudez, a spokesman for Placid Refining Co. in Port Allen, said Exxon has been referring some of its customers to the West Baton Rouge refinery. “The demand from customers has increased,” he said.

About 35 percent of the gasoline sold in metro Baton Rouge comes from Placid, Bermudez said. The refinery produces about 30,000 barrels, or 1.26 million gallons, of gasoline a day. By comparison, ExxonMobil has a daily capacity of 503,500 barrels per day, or more than 21 million gallons.

“We’re keeping up with the increased demand through our normal production and our reserves,” Bermudez said.