* Gas leak causes blast at 645,000 bpd Amuay facility
* Oil minister says fuel exports will not be affected
* Most of those killed were National Guard troops
(Adds trader, details, link to factbox)
By Sailu Urribarri
PARAGUANA/CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug 25 An
explosion tore through Venezuela's biggest oil refinery on
Saturday, killing at least 26 people, wounding more than 50 and
halting the facility's operations in the OPEC nation's worst
industrial accident in recent memory.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez told Reuters that none of the
production units at the Amuay refinery were affected and that
there were no plans to halt exports, a sign that the incident
will likely have little impact on fuel prices.
Venezuelan state TV showed footage of flames and billowing
clouds of smoke coming from storage tanks at the 645,000
barrel-per-day (bpd) facility. The blast, triggered by a gas
leak at 1:15 a.m. (0645 GMT), damaged nearby homes and officials
said a 10-year-old child was among the dead.
Most of those killed were National Guard troops who were
providing security for the refinery, Ramirez said, adding that
the fire was under control.
"There was a National Guard barracks near the explosion ...
the installation was too close to the operations," Ramirez told
Reuters in a telephone interview, adding that operations could
resume at Amuay within two days at most.
"We need to boost production at other refineries and look
for floating storage near the complex."
The incident follows repeated accidents and outages across
installations run by state oil company PDVSA during the last
decade that have limited output and crimped expansion plans.
Amuay has partially shut operations at least twice this year
due to a small fire and a fault in a cooling unit.
Those problems have spurred accusations of inept management
by the government of President Hugo Chavez, who is running for
re-election on Oct. 7.
Acrimony over the explosion could spill over into an already
bitter campaign, but it is unlikely to overtake larger political
concerns such as crime and the economy.
"I want to convey the deepest pain that I've felt in my
heart and soul since I started to get information about this
tragedy," Chavez said in call to state television. He declared
three days of mourning.
FIRE UNDER CONTROL
Venezuela has traditionally been a big supplier of fuel to
the United States and the Caribbean, but refinery shutdowns have
become so common that they rarely affect market prices.
One trader told Reuters all the docks at the refinery were
shut, and that tankers were anchored offshore waiting. He said
this would likely cause delays to some Venezuelan exports.
The explosion broke windows at homes in the area, a
peninsula in the Caribbean sea in western Venezuela, as well as
at Amuay's main administrative building.
Ramirez said a fire that broke out after the blast was under
control had only affected nine storage tanks holding mostly
crude oil and some processed fuels including naphtha.
One tank holding naphtha was still on fire, he said. A
Reuters witness at the site said black smoke was still pouting
out of that tank.
Existing fuel stocks around the country were sufficient to
guarantee 10 days of exports and local consumption, Ramirez
said. PDVSA has no plans to invoke force majeure, which lets oil
companies stop shipments due to accidents or extreme weather.
Amuay, together with a neighboring facility, forms part of
the Paraguana Refining Center, the second-biggest refinery
complex in the world with an overall capacity of 955,000 bpd.
In 2010, there was a massive fire at a PDVSA fuel terminal
on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, then a blaze at a dock at
the Paraguana complex that halted shipping for four days.
Also in 2010, a natural gas exploration rig, the Aban Pearl,
sank in the Caribbean. All 95 workers were rescued safely.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Marianna Parraga and
Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing
by Kieran Murray, Sandra Maler and Christopher Wilson)