* Eastern region has half of Gulf Coast refining capacity
* Company looking at new, existing infrastructure
* Plans could come together this year
By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Enbridge Inc has started to sketch out plans for moving Canadian crude oil to a U.S. refining market it has so far had little access to - the eastern Gulf Coast region of Louisiana and Mississippi, its chief executive said on Thursday.
Enbridge, the largest shipper of Canada's oil, has been a main player in adding pipeline capacity to the western Gulf Coast, most recently with the expansion of the Seaway pipeline between the hub at Cushing, Oklahoma, and the Houston area.
That project has begun shrinking a glut of oil supplies in the middle of the continent, where prices have been under pressure compared with international crudes. With increasingly tight capacity to move oil out of Alberta, Canadian crude has been doubly discounted.
As more supplies of Canadian oil and North Dakota's Bakken crude are shipped to Texas, refineries to the east represent the next major potential market, Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said.
He offered few details to investors at a conference in Whistler, British Columbia, however.
"I'm reluctant to really get into too much on that front, but I think it's very clear, though, from the pricing disparities that we saw that we need to get to those markets, particularly the eastern Gulf," he said.
He pointed out that the Gulf Coast region has about 8 million barrels a day of refining capacity and that about half of that capacity is on the eastern side, which comprises Louisiana and Mississippi.
The company has already embarked on a series of projects worth a total of C$6.4 billion ($6.4 billion) to move 800,000 barrels a day more Canadian crude to the Chicago area, through its Spearhead line to Cushing and to Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. The latter includes a 450,000 bpd expansion of Seaway by mid-2014.
Another market access plan would take light crude via a series of pipeline expansions and extensions through the U.S. Midwest and into Quebec at a cost of C$6.2 billion.
Besides the eastern Gulf, the company is looking at more integration with railroads to get oil from its network to the U.S. east coast and Atlantic Canada.
The moves are aimed at helping to erase the deep discount on Canadian crude while major new projects, including Enbridge's C$6 billion Northern Gateway pipeline between Alberta and the Pacific Coast, wend their way through regulatory processes. If approved, the contentious pipeline would not be in service until after 2017.
Current tight export pipeline capacity is seen as one of the main factors behind a Canadian heavy oil price that is currently about half that of international benchmark Brent.
Monaco said there are a few options to get the oil to the eastern Gulf Coast from its system, which currently moves more than 2 million barrels a day.
"There are probably two or three ways that you could do that, if you look at the pipeline grid as it sits today and what you can do as far as building new or potentially using existing infrastructure," he said. "There are a number of ways to do that and we're working through what the best ways are."
It is possible that Enbridge could put such a plan in motion sometime this year, Monaco said.