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By David Alire Garcia
MEXICO CITY, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Mexico's Pemex has begun selling heavy Maya crude for the first time since 2008 to U.S. West Coast refiners, the head of the state oil company's international trading arm said on Thursday.
Pemex will also market more light Isthmus crude this year to the U.S. West Coast, most, if not all destined for California.
The company plans to ship an average of 30,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Maya crude and 50,000 bpd of Isthmus crude over the course of 2017, Isaac Volin, chief executive of PMI Comercio Internacional, said in an interview.
Separately, Pemex's top oil trader said it is too soon to speculate about any impact on energy trade flows between the United States and Mexico if the next U.S. administration imposes a new border tax.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is considering taxing imports to protect American jobs and wages. While his specific plans are not clear, his comments have worried refiners that depend on crude imports between the two neighbors.
Pemex has for years sought to diversify its crude exports markets away from U.S. Gulf Coast refiners, in recent years shipping more oil to Asian markets.
Volin said Pemex will export the crude from a recently remodeled terminal adjacent to its Salina Cruz refinery on the Pacific coast, lessening dependence on its export hubs clustered in the Gulf of Mexico, especially when they are hit by bad weather.
While crude export revenue once contributed as much as 40 percent of government revenue, that figure has dropped by less than half as oil prices have slumped over the past couple years.
"One thing we noted during 2016 is that it has become more attractive to export our crude to the West Coast of the United States than send it to other markets, like Europe," said Volin.
The Mexican oil firm's European markets are currently saturated with crudes from the Middle East and the price it is paid in the West Coast, after discounting freight costs, is better, he added.
The new West Coast shipments began in late November with 23,000 barrels of crude, Volin said, noting that the buyer of a subsequent December spot shipment paid $1.45 more per barrel than European buyers would have paid.
The company wants to move away from spot sales and enter into longer-term contracts with West Coast clients later in the year, Volin said. He declined to name specific buyers.
Due to Pemex sending more crude to its domestic refineries for processing, total crude exports in 2017 are likely to average between 1 million and 1.1 million bpd, down from just over 1.2 million bpd last year, Volin said.
Mexico's imports of refined products from U.S. suppliers hit a record in 2016 amid very low refining rates in Mexico's six domestic refineries, which has prompted some analysts to forecast more growth in gasoline and diesel purchases in 2017.
Volin, however, says Pemex expects to import less fuel this year than last year.
Gasoline imports are expected to dip to around 400,000 bpd, down some 17 percent, while diesel imports will fall to about 130,000 bpd, down nearly 30 percent from 2016.
Volin, a former head of BlackRock Mexico, said the drop in fuel imports will begin after March.
Mexico is currently in the midst of a gradual gasoline price liberalization, part of a landmark 2014 energy overhaul, that saw fuel prices spike by double-digits on Jan. 1.
The price spike, known locally as a "gasolinazo," has led to angry protests across the country over the past couple weeks, including highway blockades and looting of gas stations.
This year Pemex could also begin its first-ever imports of U.S. light crude, which was authorized by the U.S. government for up to 75,000 bpd in 2015, he added.
It was not yet clear how much light U.S. crude might be imported, and Pemex's Industrial Transformation unit, which runs its refineries, has yet to submit a formal request, he said. (Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)