(Adds distillate margins and cargo diversion, freight spike)
By Ahmad Ghaddar and Libby George
LONDON, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Benchmark European gasoline refining margins spiked nearly 9 percent on Tuesday to their highest since April after more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of U.S. refining capacity was knocked offline by Hurricane Harvey.
Margins, the profit from refining crude into gasoline, hit $15.45 a barrel in morning trade. Benchmark diesel margins LGO-LcO1=R also stood more than 16 percent above the low hit just a week ago, amid concerns about cargoes diverted away from Europe.
Harvey knocked out 13 percent of refining capacity in the United States, the world’s largest oil consumer, while the continuing rain and flooding threatened other units, including the country’s largest refinery.
The shutdowns are expected to prompt a late-year spike in gasoline bookings from Europe to compensate for output losses. Buyers in the United States and in Latin America, which has been reliant on U.S. exports, could turn to Europe, traders said.
“Owners are being asked to provide transatlantic options on cargoes being shipped out of the Med or NWE with the view to diverting cargoes to the United States or Latin America,” said Andrew Wilson, head of energy research at shipping firm BRS Brokers.
U.S. gasoline prices surged to two-year highs on Monday to $1.7799 per gallon. By 1039 GMT on Tuesday, they were trading at $1.7014.
Between Friday and Tuesday, at least eight vessels were booked to sail from Europe to the United States, trade sources told Reuters, a slightly higher figure than normal and above the levels of recent weeks.
Freight rates on the route rose as a result of enquiries, hitting 150 on the World Scale on Tuesday, up from about 107 in the middle of last week.
Trading and shipping sources said other cargoes, including diesel and jet fuel booked for Europe, could be diverted to the United States or Latin America to fill the gap left by refinery closures.
One vessel, the Hafnia Daisy, loaded with diesel in the U.S. Gulf and bound for Europe, had turned around by Tuesday.
PVM Oil and Associates said Latin America typically imported about 1 million bpd of gasoline and diesel, so any buy who did not secure alternative supplies “especially Mexico, will find itself in the middle of a fuel shortage.”
Reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar and Libby George; Editing by Mark Potter and Edmund Blair