(Adds details on supertanker)
By Devika Krishna Kumar
NEW YORK, Feb 13 (Reuters) - The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), the largest privately owned crude terminal in the United States, said on Tuesday it had started to test loading and unloading of a supertanker, bringing it closer to being able to export crude oil.
LOOP said last year its U.S. Gulf Coast facility would have the capacity to load Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), the largest oil tankers which can ship some 2 million barrels of oil, by early 2018.
Washington lifted a 40-year ban on oil exports two years ago, and since then tankers filled with U.S. crude have landed in more than 30 countries, ranging from massive economies like China and India to tiny Togo.
Gulf Coast terminals handle three-quarters of U.S. crude exports, but only LOOP can handle incoming supertankers. Most U.S. shipping channels are too shallow, although Port Corpus Christi, Texas, is undergoing improvements to deepen its channel.
Analysts believe operators will start to run into bottlenecks if exports rise to 3.5 million to 4 million barrels a day. Exports peaked at 2 million barrels a day (bpd) last year.
LOOP made only minor modifications to existing facilities to operate the port complex for both imports and exports, it said in a statement on its website. It has until now only imported crude oil.
“The configuration safely enables both loading and offloading of Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) without multiple shuttle tanker movements,” the company said.
The vessel that is currently being used for tests is the ‘Shaden’, according to traders and Reuters vessel tracking data.
The supertanker previously loaded in Saudi Arabia’s export terminal at the port of Ras Tanura in December, according to Reuters data.
A spokesman for LOOP did not immediately respond to requests for comment as the offices were closed.
Unipec - China’s largest buyer of U.S. crude - has chartered the vessel to load in the U.S. Gulf Coast with Singapore as its destination and will be ready to load on Feb. 15, according to a fixture associated with it.
Unipec, the trading arm of Asia’s largest refiner, state-owned Sinopec, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas and Tom Brown)