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Ecopetrol says exports to the U.S. up on Venezuela, higher output

BOGOTA, May 22 (Reuters) - Colombia's state-run oil company Ecopetrol said on Wednesday its crude exports to the United States rose nearly 25% in the first quarter because of lower supply from neighboring Venezuela and higher production.

The 4-week average for crude imports from Colombia have surged to near the highest levels in a year at about 431,000 barrels per day, according to U.S. government data. Colombia is among the top 10 suppliers of crude to the United States.

Sales to the U.S. increased to 195,600 barrels per day (bpd) from 157,100 bpd in the first quarter of last year, Ecopetrol said in a statement.

"The main reasons for the good performance of crude oil exports to the United States were the use of sales opportunities in the face of lower supply from other countries, including Venezuela, as well as greater availability of crude oil for sale due to the increase in production," the company said.

About 12.3 million barrels of Colombian crude arrived in the United States in April, according to Refinitiv Eikon data, the highest since February 2016. Arrivals in May are on track to be about 9.4 million barrels.

A majority of April cargoes were Colombia's medium sour Vasconia grade. Several cargoes of Colombia's heavy Castilla Blend were also shipped.

Charterers in April included U.S. refiners PBF Energy, Marathon Petroleum and Valero, the Refinitiv Eikon data showed.

Flows in May are also likely to be higher as Canadian crude, a steady part of some of the biggest U.S. refiners' diet, has strengthened in the Gulf Coast, traders said, trading as strong as $3 per barrel above benchmark futures for May.

Venezuela's output is at a near seven-decade low due to years of mismanagement and under-investment, and production declines have accelerated in recent months following U.S. sanctions.

The drop in Venezuelan shipments has worsened a global drought of the heavy crude that U.S. Gulf Coast refineries prefer, spurring a hunt for similar grades.

Ecopetrol said earlier this month its first-quarter net profit increased 5% to around $847 million on the back of output and sales upticks and greater operating efficiencies.

The company has said it will invest between $3.5 billion and $4 billion in 2019, more than in 2018, as part of an ambitious plan to boost production and exploration to replenish dwindling reserves. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Devika Krishna Kumar in Houston; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Richard Chang)