NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
An already-tense energy market went further on edge Thursday as a deadly mid-week fire at a major refinery sent gasoline futures prices soaring and raised concerns about summer shortages.
"We don't know how much of the refinery is down or for how long. But not to negate the human tragedy, it happened at the worst time of the year seasonally," said oil analyst Peter Beutel, president of Cameron Hanover. "And it happens at a time the market is nervous and looking for reasons to go higher anyway."
The explosion Wednesday afternoon at the BP (Research) plant in Texas City, Texas, outside Houston, killed at least 14 people and injured more than 70. One man is still unaccounted for, and five of those hospitalized are in serious condition, according to BP spokesman Hugh Depland.
The refinery is the third largest in the nation, accounting for 3.1 percent of U.S. gasoline production.
Depland said that the unit damaged by the blast was in maintenance Wednesday, and not producing gasoline. He said the rest of the plant's output was not affected.
"Our production today is about the same as it was the day before yesterday," he said Thursday morning.
The unit where the blast occurred was one of 30 at the refinery, and it manufactures components used to boost octane. Depland could not say how long the affected unit will take to repair or what the long-term impact on output from the plant will be.
"At the moment we're not focused on market issues, we're focusing on the people issues," he said.
Futures for the April contract for unleaded gasoline rose 2.26 cents to $1.5975 a gallon in early trading Thursday. In trading just after the Wednesday fire, the contract touched a record $1.6080. In early Thursday trade the May light crude contract gained 54 cents to $54.35 a barrel in electronic trading .The May contract for Brent crude rose 79 cents to $53.83.
At this time of year refineries are rushing to switch from heating oil to gasoline production to build supplies ahead of the summer driving season.
Beutel said the Friday market holiday could drive prices even higher Thursday as traders try to avoid holding short positions over the three-day weekend. It's too soon to say what impact the explosion will have at the pump for consumers, but any cut in output can cause problems and higher prices.
"We're already in the position where every refinery unit is vital just to meet demand," said analyst Beutel. "We don't have any spare capacity. That's what it makes it so critical."
Even if the BP refinery doesn't see a significant drop in production long term, there is likely to be an impact on gas prices from the explosion said A. F. Alhajji, professor at Northern Ohio University.
"We need every drop of gasoline for the driving season. Even the 10-hour stop in production (at the whole refinery Thursday) will have an impact on inventories," said Alhajji. He said that one impact of refineries struggling to keep up with demand is that more problems and accidents are likely to occur and drive up prices.
"Once U.S. refining capacity reached its limits four or five years ago, we started experiencing more unplanned outages at refineries," he said. "Most likely we are going to see an increase in gasoline imports year after year, rather than just oil imports. And that too will increase price volatility."
For more on rising gas prices and how they affect you, click here.