By Erwin Seba
HOUSTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - BP Plc's idled 225,000 barrel per day (bpd) refinery at Cherry Point, Washington, will remain shut into April for repairs from a Feb 17 fire and planned maintenance work originally due later in the year, the firm said on Wednesday.
Combining the work will reduce the amount of time the refinery will be shut, the company said in a message to residents near the refinery.
The refinery is the third largest on the U.S. West Coast and the largest in Washington state. The loss of production from the idled refinery has helped send retail gasoline prices above $4.00 a gallon along the West Coast, which is isolated from Gulf Coast and Midwest refining centers due to a lack of pipelines to the Pacific.
Trade sources said last week the refinery was expected to be shut for repairs at least six weeks from the date of the fire.
The Feb 17 blaze broke out in the vacuum unit on the refinery's only crude distillation unit, which begins the crude oil refining process and provides feedstocks for other production units to turn into finished motor fuels.
The vacuum unit refines residual crude, the thick, gunky remainder of a barrel of oil, boosting the yield of fuel.
A mechanical failure shot the residual crude oil out of the vacuum unit, where it is processed under high heat and pressure, causing the fire.
Only one minor injury was reported due to the blaze.
Since the fire, BP has been silent about how long the refinery was expected to be shut.
In the first days after the blaze, BP had hoped to restore up to 75 percent of refinery production through a bypass of the vacuum unit, according to sources familiar with BP's plans.
Those plans were discarded when it became apparent the damage was too extensive to allow a bypass, the sources said.
The refinery provides about 20 percent of the gasoline market share in Washington and Oregon; the majority of jet fuel for the international airports in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, according to BP. It is also the largest West Coast supplier of jet fuel to the U.S. military.
BP notified people living near the refinery, about 100 miles north of Seattle, of the length of the shutdown because of increased traffic they will encounter while the refinery work is underway. (Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)