Explaining Southern California's economy

3 reasons LA is getting crushed by rising gasoline prices

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FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

A man pumps gas into his vehicle at a gas station in Monterey Park, Los Angeles County. Gas prices have dipped somewhat, but was the run-up due to market manipulations?

Los Angelenos have been suffering at the gas pump over the past week. Prices spiked by more than 50 cents, with the average cost of a gallon of regular zooming closer to $5 than $4. Following a fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery in August, L.A. drivers had already gotten used to a new normal, with gas stuck above $4. But last week, in some parts of the area, gas stations were posting prices closer to $6.

In response, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) fired off her second letter to the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, insisting that the dramatic price increase couldn't be blamed on market forces — a basic imbalance of supply and demand — and was instead due to Tesoro, a major supplier of California's unique blend of gas, getting caught in a "short squeeze" that placed the company at the mercy of traders who were more than willing to use a 97-cent-per-gallon hike in the wholesale gas market to victimize consumers.

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FAQ: Why are gas prices so high in Los Angeles? Everything you need to know

Gasoline Prices

Ed Joyce / KPCC

Southern California gasoline prices skyrocketed Friday to $4.53 a gallon, nearing the all-time record price set in 2008. And there's no relief in sight.

In one short week, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has shot through the roof, climbing nearly 50 cents. The price in Los Angeles County is currently at $4.59 on average, with prices in some parts of the city closing in on ... wait for it ...

Six bucks!

What's behind the big spike, which has now placed us within spitting distance of our all-time 2008 high of $4.61. 

Why? Why?!

Glad you asked...

Q: Does this have anything to do with the fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery from back in August?

A: YES! The oldest refinery in the state still isn't fully back online. It accounts for around 15 percent of all the gas that goes into motorists' tanks in the Golden State. And this isn't just any gas — it's a special formula, more environmentally benign, that is required by state law. Burning that fuel already costs Californians more than states where bad, old environmentally less clean gas is consumed. So any disruption in the supply is going to push our gas prices up — fast!

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August LA jobs: Unemployment rate drops to 10.3 percent

Career Fair Held In San Mateo

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A job seeker goes through a folder before meeting with recruiters. The Los Angeles area is moving closer to having a single-digit unemployment rate.

The Labor Department has released its August jobs report for what it calls "metropolitan areas," and the news for Los Angeles is good: In August, the unemployment rate fell to 10.3 percent from July's 10.9 percent. Year-over-year, the drop is substantial, down more than a full percentage point from August 2011.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area added 103,000 new jobs, a notable improvement over July's 86,300. Only the New York-New Jersey area did better, with 117,900 jobs added on an over-the-year basis.

Other parts of the state are not faring as well.

El Centro continues to have a scary-high unemployment rate, nearly 30 percent. For the metro areas that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks in California, only ten have unemployment rates in single digits — and nowhere is the rate lower than 7 percent.

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If BYD is in trouble in China, what does that mean for its HQ in Los Angeles?

BYD-DowntownLA-MDB

Matthew DeBord

BYD — it stands for "Build Your Dreams" — built a future in Downtown L.A., home to its North American HQ. Unfortunately, it's enduring something of a nightmare with its business at home in China, even with billionaire Warren Buffett invested.

BYD is a Chinese company that has one big thing going for it: It counts Warren Buffett as an investor. But beyond that, the carmaker/batterymaker/solar manufacturer has been enduring a rough ride. It's seen a massive decline in earnings this year, while Buffett has seen his 10 percent stake, purchased in 2008, fall to substantially less than its 2010 peak value of $1.2 billion. BYD (it stands for "Build Your Dreams") executives have been heading for the exits.

There are some complex, interpersonal, inside-Berkshire Hathaway questions about how Buffett and his longtime partner, Charles Munger, came to be involved with BYD. But there's no question about how Los Angeles came to be home to BYD's North American headquarters, opened Downtown about a year ago, in a corridor that's jammed with auto dealerships.

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Gas prices in Los Angeles remain above $4 a gallon

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Corey Bridwell/KPCC

Gas prices at a Chevron station in Pasadena, CA. In Los Angeles, prices has climbed well above $4 a gallon and are closing in on $4.20.

According the U.S. government, there's only one region in the U.S. where a gallon of regular gas costs more than $4 a gallon, and that's the West Coast (there are five regions altogether than the government has created to track). And within the West Coast, gas in Los Angeles is running 11 cents higher that the region as a whole, reports GasBuddy.com: $4.08 versus $4.19. 

Gas in California is always ore expensive than in the rest of the country. In fact, if you take California out of the West Coast region, the average price-per-gallon promptly falls 16 cents, to $3.92. At which point, the New England region then has the most expensive gas.

In L.A., our gas has been running above $4 a gallon since early-August, when the fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery took out one of the main suppliers of the special environmentally friendly formula that's required by law. 

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