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Washington — US refiners cannot rely on Mexico to replace Venezuelan heavy oil imports as the country is battling to reverse its declining production and Pemex's oil is sold under contractual basis, analysts and others say.

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Pemex sends 54% of its heavy crude exports to Asia and Europe under a contractual basis, preventing US from buying more Mexican crude in the spot market, a source close to Pemex told S&P Global Platts on Tuesday.

A de facto ban on US imports of Venezuelan crude announced Monday by the Trump administration has created a sudden 500,000 b/d heavy, sour crude supply gap in the US Gulf Coast.

Mexican crude, particularly Maya, may be the most similar to Venezuelan crude and, due to proximity to USGC ports, the most logical replacement for US refiners of Venezuelan oil. However, US refiners won't be able to acquire the 625,000 b/d of Mexican crude sold in Europe and Asia unless Pemex and its customers is willing to renegotiate term contracts.

Pemex sells 90% of its crude exports under contracts, according to the company's Securities and Exchange Commission report.

A US SWAP?

There is a slim option for US refiners to access more Mexican barrels, Lourdes Melgar, a deputy hydrocarbons secretary under the previous Mexican administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, told Platts. Mexico could do heavy-light crude swaps with the US, helping to increase the efficiency of Pemex's simple configuration refineries, she added.

Mexico recently purchased a limited amount of US Bakken light crude to run at its domestic refineries.

"However, I don't know if the spirit of the current administration, for what we have seen, would implement a swap strategy to aid American refiners," Melgar said. Lopez Obrador has said he does not want to export crude oil and instead wants to refine it domestically, she added.

Mexico's energy secretary, Rocio Nahle, said Tuesday that Pemex is processing 600,000 b/d. However, according to government data, Pemex's fuel oil yield is 35%. If Mexico had access to more light crude, it could increase the profitability of its refining sector by cutting its fuel oil yield, and free up some heavy barrels for export. Although, Nahle said Pemex is not considering importing more light oil at the moment.

NO OUTPUT JUMP

The Trump administration Monday announced sanctions which will allow US refiners to buy Venezuelan crude at least through April. But, US refiners, who import Venezuelan crude, must now pay for it through blocked US accounts, preventing President Nicolas Maduro's regime from accessing that oil revenue and, effectively, stopping flows of Venezuelan crude to the US. Major US buyers of Venezuelan crude, including Valero and Chevron, have contracts for Mexican supply, but additional barrels will be difficult to acquire due to Mexico's production declines, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics, in a research note.

"Mexican crude oil production has been on a steep decline since the mid 2000's due to lack of investment in new projects and declines from mature fields," said analyst Lenny Rodriguez of Platts Analytics on Wednesday.

Platts Analytics forecasts Mexican crude production to average about 1.81 million b/d this year, down about 39,000 b/d from 2018 and down 138,000 b/d from 2017. Mexican oil output is forecast fall below 1.78 million b/d in 2021 before starting a modest rebound.

"Mexico's oil production continues to fall and increasing exports to the United States would be extraordinarily difficult in the short term," Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, said Wednesday.

REFINERS DIVERSIFY

Some US Gulf Coast refiners, particularly major buyers of Venezuelan crude, have been increasing purchases of Mayan crude and, in some cases, reducing purchases of Venezuelan crude as the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela worsen and US sanctions were being considered.

Phillips 66, for example, has not bought a barrel of Venezuelan crude for its Sweeny Refinery in Texas since December 2017. That refinery, which has a crude capacity of 256,000 b/d and is 65 miles southwest of Houston, at its peak imported nearly 176,000 b/d of Venezuelan crude, according to US Energy Information Administration data. Roughly 93,000 b/d of Mexican crude was purchased for the refinery in October, down from a peak of 106,000 b/d in April, according to EIA.

Chevron's Pascagoula refinery in Mississippi, which remained a major buyer of Venezuelan crude until Monday's sanctions were announced, imported nearly 119,000 b/d of Mexican crude in August, its highest level since November 2014.

The US imported roughly 692,300 b/d of crude from Mexico from September 2017 to October 2018, according to the most recent EIA data. This was up from about 569,500 b/d over the same previous year-long period. US imports of Mexican crude peaked at about 1.73 million b/d in June 2006.

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

-- Daniel Rodriguez, daniel.rodriguez@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Richard Rubin, newsdesk@spglobal.com

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