* First-quarter adjusted profit $0.44/share vs est. $0.40
* Operating income from refining operations rises 20 pct
(Adds outlook, details, background, shares)
May 6 (Reuters) - Oil refiner Western Refining Inc reported a better-than-expected adjusted quarterly profit and said the second quarter was off to a "strong start", with refining margins picking up.
Inland refiners such as Western Refining, HollyFrontier Corp and Marathon Petroleum Corp are benefiting from easy access to cheap shale crude, boosting their refining margins.
Western Refining, which operates refineries in El Paso, and Gallup in New Mexico, said operating income from its refining operations rose 20 percent to $10.5 million in the first quarter ended March 31.
"The WTI Midland/Cushing differential has widened during the quarter with April and May averaging over $8.80 per barrel and we are seeing stronger values for finished products in our regions," Chief Executive Jeff Stevens said in a statement.
The price gap between West Texas Intermediate crude oil for delivery at Midland, Texas and the U.S. benchmark in Cushing, Oklahoma is widening amid growing production from the Permian Basin, which stretches over Texas and New Mexico.
Net income attributable to Western Refining rose to $85.5 million, or 88 cents per share, in the first quarter from $83.7 million, or 81 cents per share, a year earlier.
Excluding a pretax hedging gain of $74 million, adjusted profit was 44 cents per share.
Analysts on average had estimated earnings of 40 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Western Refining's shares closed at $43.53 on Monday on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock has risen nearly 37 percent in the past year.
(Reporting by Swetha Gopinath in Bangalore; Editing by Savio D'Souza and Kirti Pandey)