NEW DELHI, May 17 (Reuters) - Iraq replaced Saudi Arabia as top crude supplier to India in April as refiners moved to boost their processing margins by purchasing the cheaper Basra Heavy oil grade, ship tracking and Thomson Reuters trade flow data showed.
India's April imports from Iraq topped 1 million barrels per day (bpd) for the first time, up by about a third from March and 8 percent from a year ago, according to ship tracking data obtained from sources and data compiled by Thomson Reuters Oil Research & Forecasts.
"Basra heavy is good for refineries with coker units, it is also good for conventional refiners that make bitumen as that is in demand in India. Also (the crude) is available at discounts so it is value for every dollar that we spend," said M. K. Surana, chairman of Hindustan Petroleum Corp.
Indian refiners in recent years have invested heavily in modernising plants to more efficiently process low grade crudes into diesel and gasoline, helping to boost operating margins and giving greater flexibility in the oil grades they can buy.
This has allowed refiners in the third-largest oil consumer to shop around during periods of tightness, and remain profitable in a fast-growing, cost-sensitive market.
India's crude mix is highly diverse as a result, with just over 15 percent of its flows stemming from Africa in April, nearly 13 percent from Latin America, and most of the rest coming from the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, usually India's main supplier, shipped about 750,000 bpd to the South Asian nation in April, a decline of about 5 percent from the previous month and 8 percent from a year ago, the data showed.
With each barrel of Iraq's Basra Heavy oil trading at roughly $2.85 less than a barrel of Saudi Arabia's Arab Heavy mix when the deals were done, Indian importers were able to realise a substantial cost-savings by making the switch, without much impact on product output.
India's lower Saudi purchases were partly due to firmer Saudi prices following the production cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) since January.
Iraq is OPEC's second-largest producer after Saudi Arabia, but so far has been resistant to an aggressive cut given its reliance on oil revenues to fund its economy.
"Iraqi oil is a good alternative to other heavy grades from OPEC. Basra is sold at a huge discount to Dubai or other heavy grades in spot markets, whereas Saudi oil is available only at the OSP (Official Selling Price)," said Ehsan Ul Haq, Senior Analyst at KBC Energy.
A delay to Venezuelan oil loadings due to problems at a major port helped to boost India's demand for Iraqi oil, and India also took more Russian Urals crude.
Iran emerged as the third-biggest oil supplier to India in April, replacing Venezuela, which slipped to the fifth spot, behind Nigeria, the data showed.
Reporting by Nidhi Verma; Editing by Tom Hogue