* Latam exports to Asia down 1 pct in Q1; Mideast up 7 pct
* India imports from Latam fall 13 percent in Q1
* Supply outages, strong WTI prices curb Latam exports to Asia
* Buyers look to Mideast for more heavy crude supplies
By Florence Tan
SINGAPORE, April 6 (Reuters) - Asian oil buyers are seeking more heavy crude from the Middle East this year as Latin American supplies have become more expensive relative to other grades, while port and production outages have disrupted exports from Venezuela, Peru and Brazil.
Strong demand for replacements for South American crudes has driven up spot premiums for grades such as Iraq’s Basra Heavy for loading in April and May, and buyers are also looking more to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran for oil of similar quality.
The switch comes as U.S. oil prices strengthened against other regional benchmarks late last year after Washington lifted a ban on U.S. crude exports, a move that could help producers in the United States work down a domestic supply surplus.
Unplanned outages at ports and pipelines and necessary maintenance work at oilfields all across South America have also tightened exports from a region that pumps about a tenth of the world’s oil.
“This is mainly in Venezuela, where the outage of a major port has led to the loss of 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude exports,” FGE analyst Tushar Bansal said.
Venezuela’s output could fall by 400,000 bpd this year due to a lack of investment in the upstream sector and not enough funds available to buy light oil for blending, Bansal said.
Latin American crude sold to Asia fell 1 percent in the first three months of 2016 from a year ago, while Middle East exports to Asia rose 7 percent in the first quarter, data from Thomson Reuters Trade Flows shows.
India saw the sharpest drop in Latin American supplies, down 13 percent during the quarter, although top Asian buyer China bucked the trend with an 11 percent rise in imports from South America, some taken in repayment for government loans.
“It’s not so easy for Latin American crude to make their way into Asia,” a Singapore-based trader said, pointing to a narrower price spread between West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent after the United States ended its crude export ban.
Indian refiners, for instance, are instead snapping up the next cheapest alternative, Iraqi Basra Heavy, the trader said.
Strong demand for this grade has pushed up its spot premium to $1-$2 a barrel for cargoes loading in April and May, traders said, even as a huge tanker traffic jam at Basra ports is delaying shipments.
This is all happening at just the right time for Iran, with sanctions targeting its nuclear programme lifted only in January.
Iran is expected to raise output by another 300,000 bpd in the second half of this year, which will be mostly heavy crude, FGE’s Bansal said.
More heavy crude supply could come from the Khafji field jointly operated by OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Kuwait said in late March that it has reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to restart the field which was shut in October 2014.
Analysts expect the Khafji restart to take two to six months before supply is added in the market.
Reporting by Florence Tan; Editing by Tom Hogue