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With Ecuador output squeezed, US West Coast refiners face tighter heavy crude market

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USWC refiners source 11% of crude from Ecuador

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Petroamazonas' plans for clients unclear

Washington — The disruption of roughly 12% of Ecuador's oil production this week could create a supply crunch for US West Coast refiners already facing a tight heavy crude market, analysts told S&P Global Platts on Tuesday.

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On Monday, Ecuador's Ministry of Energy announced about 63,250 b/d of oil had been suspended by state oil company Petroamazonas in the Sacha, Auca, and Libertador oil fields following protests, which led to seizures of facilities and the closure of roads. The protests began after President Lenin Moreno ended Ecuador's fuel subsidies.

The three oil fields shut produce heavy sour Oriente, which has 23.7 API and 1.50% sulfur content, according to Ecuador's state-oil company Petroecuador.

"The market for heavy crude will certainly get even tighter," said John Auers, executive vice president of Turner, Mason & Co.

Heavy sour Oriente and Napo are the two flagship crudes produced by Ecuador, and are among the few Latin American crudes traded in the spot international markets.

US and Asian refineries have considered both grades as replacements of Iranian and Venezuelan crudes, currently under US sanctions.

"Napo production has not been affected, but it has to be diverted to the OCP pipeline due to the blockages and protest," one market source in Ecuador said. During normal conditions, 50% of Napo production runs in the SOTE pipeline, while the other 50% through the OCP, which is located near the border with Colombia.

The same source said no impacts had been reported on Oriente or Napo prices as a result of the disruption at the three oil fields.

WEST COAST SCRAMBLE

Crude oil from Ecuador accounts for roughly 11% of US West Coast imports, US Energy Information Administration data shows, and any supply disruption will cause US refiners to "scramble" for replacement barrels if the outage persists, Auers said.

"Basically, they will have to piece together supply from a variety of sources and certainly won't be able to get in-kind replacements completely," Auers said.

West Coast refiners used to continuous supplies from Ecuador may look to the Middle East as an alternative, said Lenny Rodriguez with S&P Global Platts Analytics. He said due to both the timing and distance, however, the Middle East will not offer a short-term solution.

Platts Analytics data shows Arab Heavy coking margins offer West Coast refiners a slight advantage to those for Oriente. On Monday, Arab Heavy coking margins closed at $40.90/b, compared to $36.10/b for Oriente.

While West Coast refiners will be most impacted, the disruption will also be bullish for heavy crudes in the Atlantic basin, which has seen supply tightness since the US imposed a de facto ban on Venezuelan crude imports back in January, Rodriguez said.

"It remains to be seen how quickly the local government can regain control of the oil fields that were impacted and, also, if there is any backtracking of the announced elimination of fuel subsidies, which was the trigger for the social unrest," he said.

Rodriguez said it remains unclear how Petroamazonas will allocate its production losses among its export clients, the majority of which are in Asia.

"It could be that the US clients may not be greatly affected," he said.

US refiners imported about 175,800 b/d of Ecuadorian crude in 2018, nearly all of it heavy sour crude, according to the EIA. Roughly 81% of that crude from Ecuador was sent to US West Coast refineries, with the rest sent to US Gulf Coast refiners.

In July, about 181,750 b/d of Ecuadorian crude was sent to the US, with 78% going to the West Coast and the rest to the Gulf Coast, according to EIA's latest data.

Marathon's Los Angeles refinery, which has a crude oil capacity of 363,000 b/d and is the West Coast's largest refinery, imported about 47,450 b/d of Ecuadorian crude in July, the most of any US buyer.

USWC refiners, however, have seen tough competition in the market lately for Ecuadorian barrels.

In September, Petroecuador awarded over 4 million barrels of Oriente crude to China's Unipec and more than 1 million barrels of Napo to Spain-based Repsol, after both companies posted aggressive bids for the grades.

Tuesday, the Ecuadoran oil producer was believed to award trading company Glencore with 1.4 million barrels of Napo crude in a tender for October and November loadings. The deadline to receive bids was originally scheduled October 10.

-- Maria Eugenia Garcia, maria.eugenia.garcia@spglobal.com

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

-- Edited by Jim Levesque, newsdesk@spglobal.com