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* Wildfires have cut oil sand production by 1.5 million bpd
* Most of Canadian oil sand crude exported to U.S. by pipeline
* Middle East, Latin American tanker imports to compensate
* But high U.S. crude inventories to act as cap to imports
By Keith Wallis
SINGAPORE, May 10 (Reuters) - Canada's wildfires, which have knocked out some 1.5 million barrels of daily oil production, are expected to drive up tanker imports and freight rates as U.S. consumers seek alternative supplies after a drop in Canadian pipeline supplies.
With most Canadian oil sand crude piped to the United States, importers there will need bigger seaborne imports, mostly into the Gulf of Mexico, adding to existing port congestion.
Although crude stored in North America could be used to overcome some of the disruption, shipping experts expect tanker imports and freight rates to rise.
"To compensate for the shortfall, the U.S. needs to either ramp up other imports, which would be seaborne, or draw down on inventories. The first alternative would be good for tankers now, whilst the second alternative is positive in the longer term," said Trygve Munthe, co-chief executive of Norwegian-based tanker owner DHT Management.
Average rates this year for a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) carrying 2 million barrels of oil are around $56,000 per day, according to shipping services firm Clarkson, while average rates for a smaller Suexmax, carrying around 1 million barrels, are around $36,000 per day.
This increased demand, equivalent to around 36 VLCCs if the outage lasted 12 months, according to Norway's Arctic Securities, could offset the negative impact on freight rates from new tanker deliveries.
Around 56 VLCCs are scheduled for delivery this year.
Latin American and Middle East producers are seen as the most likely to supply substitute oil.
With Venezuela facing stalled production, Ralph Leszczynski of ship broker Banchero Costa said that Colombia and Ecuador were likely substitutes for Canadian crude as they produce similar heavy grades.
If, however, Canada's outages persist, shippers said that Middle East suppliers would be the only ones with enough spare capacity to step in.
"If this drags out over time, we think the Middle East is the only producing region with an ability to ramp up production on a more sustained basis," Munthe said.
For the time being, North American storage could meet some of the lost production, and Canada's oil sands facilities have been left largely undamaged.
"Restarting shuttered production will take several weeks after fires are extinguished, even with no damage," Morgan Stanley said in a note to clients.
U.S. commercial crude stockpiles have likely risen for five straight weeks to a record of over 543 million barrels, traders said.
Editing by Henning Gloystein and Ed Davies