Blast hits Iran refinery as Ahmadinejad visits

By NASSER KARIMI | May 24, 2011 | 4:42 AM EDT

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An explosion blamed on a gas leak rocked Iran's largest oil refinery shortly before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived at the site for a scheduled visit Tuesday, an Iranian news agency reported.

The semi-official Fars news agency said the blast took place in the morning hours, just before Ahmadinejad was to inaugurate an expansion project at the refinery in the southwestern city of Abadan. At least 20 people were injured from the blast, which set of a fire at the site, the report said. The explosion was blamed on a "gas leakage" but there were no further details.

Another report, by the semi-official Mehr news agency said at least two people were killed and that the blast took place while Ahmadinejad was visiting. It said the president ordered a special plane to airlift those critically injured to Tehran.

The state television, meanwhile, said the explosion happened after Ahmadinejad had left the site. A live broadcast by the TV showed the president speaking to local officials at the refinery.

The reports said firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze that followed the explosion. But the discrepancies in the media reports about the sequence of events at Abadan could not immediately be reconciled. Officials at the site could not be reached for comment.

Fazel Kaebi, an Abadan resident, told The Associated Press over the phone that he saw ambulances and rescue teams rush to the site shortly after the explosion. He said the townspeople had noticed black smoke coming from the refinery in the past few days, which he speculated could have been from a fire.

During his speech show on state TV from Abadan, Ahmadinejad appeared unperturbed and assailed the countries enemies, telling local officials that Iran is today able to meet all its domestic oil needs.

"The hopes of Iran's enemies in imposing pressure through restrictions on the sale of oil products have turned into a complete disappointment," he said.

Iran has in the past years hastily launched expansion projects at refineries to stave off damage from sanctions by the West on fuel sales to Iran over Tehran's controversial nuclear program. The West suspects Iran is pursuing nuclear arms, a charge Iran denies and says its nuclear program is aimed for peaceful energy production.

Hamid Reza Katouzian, a lawmaker and member of the parliament's energy committee told Mehr news agency that he had warned about the risk of explosions because the Abadan refinery was not ready for an expansion.

Katouzian insisted Tuesday's blast was not an act of sabotage but happened "because of a lack of readiness at the refinery."

The project in Abadan is aimed at increasing fuel production in the refinery by more than a third. The century-old refinery is the biggest one in Iran and refines 43,000 barrels per day, one of a total of eight refineries across the country.

Iran says it is on the verge of self-sufficiency in fuel production. The country consumes about 14.3 million gallons of fuel per day. Recent increase brought its production to about 13.2 million gallons per day.

Over the past years and due to lack of refining capacity, Iran has imposed a fuel rationing system under which each car receives about 15.8 gallons of fuel at a 150 cents per gallon. Higher quantities can be bought at about 260 cents per gallon.

Iran — OPEC's second largest oil exporter and the world's fourth largest crude oil producer — relies on oil exports for about 80 percent of its public revenues It produces about 4.1 million barrels a day, of which roughly 2.5 million are exported.