By Jessica Resnick-Ault
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp's planned sale of its Los Angeles-area oil refinery has been delayed until early next year at the earliest following a severe fire in February, four people familiar with the transaction said.
The 155,000-barrel-a-day plant was put on the block in September, and a handful of bidders including a West Coast private equity group had been short-listed, according to two of the people.
However, the process slowed following a Feb. 18 fire that badly damaged an electrostatic precipitator, a component of a gasoline-producing unit. The site had a subsequent small fire in March.
The sale will not take place until the plant is fully repaired, which could put it in the first quarter of 2016, according to the sources.
"A deal was imminent but for the fire," said one of the four people, who declined to be named because the matter was not public.
Exxon is selling as oil majors look at jettisoning refineries that do not fit well with their other assets. While few refineries are currently going through auctions, activity is expected to ramp up if oil prices stabilize.
The plant has received bids from private equity firms including NTR Partners and refiners such as PBF Energy, according two of the sources. The plant could provide an entry point to the West Coast for either company.
PBF did not make the short list before the fire, said another source familiar with the deal. However, the slate of bidders may change after the incident.
"California is the toughest place in the U.S. to operate," Chief Executive Officer Tom Nimbley told Reuters last week. "We are not afraid - we are somewhat contrarian."
NTR Partners did not return requests for comment. The Los Angeles-based company is an energy firm with a focus on West Coast investments, according to its website. One partner, Mario Rodriguez, was a co-founder of Northern Tier Energy LLC, which purchased a Minnesota-based refinery.
One of the people said Exxon has been working to unload refineries that are not integrated with chemical plants and do not run North American crude. The Los Angeles plant is one of Exxon's four refineries in the United States that do not have an adjacent chemical plant. A second, in Chalmette, Louisiana, which Exxon operates jointly with Petroleos de Venezuela, is currently on the block.
The other two refineries that are not integrated are located in Joliet, Illinois, and Billings, Montana, and process North American crude oil. "As a matter of practice, we do not comment on market speculation or rumor," said Todd Spitler, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil.
(Reporting By Jessica Resnick-Ault; Editing by Ted Botha)