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Washington — The Trump administration is poised to impose sanctions on US imports of Venezuelan crude oil, a move which will leave US Gulf Coast refiners scrambling for more costly replacement barrels, sources said.

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If sanctions are imposed, flows of heavy crudes into the US are most likely to increase from Mexico, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, analysts said this week.

"Essentially, if you have sanctions that don't allow the current 500,000 b/d of Venezuelan crude to come to the US then you'd have a reallocation of trade flows around the world," said John Auers, executive vice president of Turner, Mason & Company. "But it's not going to be a perfect reallocation."

An increase of imports of each grade poses a challenge, from infrastructure constraints to government-imposed output curtailments.

"US refiners would likely pay a premium due to infrastructure constraints, competition for market share in Asia, and continued OPEC supply limits," analysts with Rapid Energy Group said in a note Friday.

The sanctions would also likely be imposed at a time when heavy barrels are trading at a premium to light crudes.

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In fact, Saudi Arab Medium for US buyers moved to a 40 cent/b premium to WTI MEH this month, according to S&P Global Platts calculations. This time last year, Arab Medium for US buyers was at a $3/b discount to WTI MEH.

But an exit of Venezuelan crudes from the USGC market would only exacerbate this dynamic, likely raising prices of other similarly heavy grades even further at the expense of Gulf Coast refiners.

Gulf Coast coking margins for Venezuela's Mesa crude have averaged around $5/b so far in January, roughly equal to those for US benchmark medium sour Mars. But these are nearly double those for coking Saudi Arab Heavy or Arab Medium or Mexican Maya.

Sources said that if the heavy market tightens further, refineries --- many of which have invested significantly in crackers and cokers -- will be faced with the choice of chasing more expensive barrels or switching to a less optimal lighter crude diet.

"Complex refiners will buy all the heavy sour because the residue allows them to turn it into the most profitable of products," said an oil market analyst with a Europe-based refiner, who asked not to be named. "The battle will be between running more light sweet or more medium sour."

SAUDI REPLACEMENT BARRELS

Roughly 45% of the crude Saudi Arabia sends to the US is imported by Gulf Coast refiners. In October, Gulf Coast refiners imported nearly 484,000 b/d of Saudi crude, up from about 310,000 b/d in October 2107, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Analysts said they expect the Saudis could increase exports to meet increased demand in the Gulf Coast.

"I do think [the Saudis] will be opportunistic, as they always are, with the slate of crudes that they're offering and the crudes that they're directing to different places," said Michael Cohen, head of energy markets research at Barclays.

But the Saudis may be unwilling to boost exports of heavy barrels to the US Gulf Coast after the kingdom boosted oil output ahead of US reimposition of Iranian oil sanctions and then felt betrayed by the Trump administration's decision to issue multiple waivers to those sanctions, sources said.

The Trump administration has not asked the Saudis to boost output in anticipation of Venezuela sanctions as they did ahead of the Iran sanctions reimposition, sources said.

NORTH AMERICAN CRUDES

Canada shipped about 644,000 b/d of crude to the USGC in October, about 18% of the 3.63 million b/d it exported to the US that month, according to the EIA.

While analysts see Western Canadian Select as a potential replacement for lost Venezuelan barrels, infrastructure constraints, including limited pipeline and rail capacity, could hold back an increase in exports.

In addition, Alberta's 325,000 b/d oil production curtailment, which went into effect on January 1, could further hinder US refiners' access to additional Canadian crude.

Analysts with ClearView Energy Partners in a note Friday speculated that if US sanctions went into effect, Alberta may agree to suspend its output curtailment.

While preferred pipeline-delivered Western Canadian Select offers USGC refiners coking margins over $8/b so far this month, incremental volumes of Canadian crude on the Gulf Coast is likely to come via increasingly unprofitable rail. S&P Global Platts calculations show margins for uncommitted railed barrels have fallen into the red by as much as $7/b as of January 24.

There could also be a push to increase imports of heavy crude from Mexico, which accounted for about 604,000 b/d of USGC oil imports in October, EIA data shows.

Auers said that contracts with Asian and European refiners could keep Mexico from sending additional barrels to the US, at least for several months. In addition, politics could prevent an increase in exports, Auers said.

Canada's government followed Trump's recognition of Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's National Assembly, as the country's legitimate president. But Mexico backed President Nicolas Maduro as the country's legitimate president.

-- Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

-- Herman Wang, herman.wang@spglobal.com

-- James Bambino, james.bambino@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Derek Sands, newsdesk@spglobal.com