HOUSTON, July 20 (Reuters) - Italy's imports of U.S. crude oil vaulted to a record in June after attacks by armed groups shuttered two major Libyan oil ports and cut off most deliveries from the OPEC country, a key supplier to Europe, according to Thomson Reuters trade flow data and shipping intelligence firm Kpler.
The flows reflected the U.S. oil industry's growing ability to serve as an alternative supplier when contained regional conflicts pinch oil supplies to allies.
U.S. lawmakers lifted a 40-year-old crude export ban in late 2015, allowing producers to push oil extracted from shale rocks in West Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota into European and Asian markets dominated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other U.S. rivals like Russia.
"The U.S. is turning into a stable supplier of light, sweet crude that can go to market when others can't," said Jim Krane, fellow for energy studies at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.
"When you see unrest in Libya and West Africa, light, tight oil from the states will be the go-to substitute."
Eight vessels left the U.S. Gulf Coast for Italy last month carrying a record 4.93 million barrels of oil, or about 165,000 barrels per day (bpd) for June, according to Paris-based Kpler.
That was up from 3.3 million barrels in May and 1.9 million barrels in April. Kpler's preliminary figures showed tankers are set to carry 2.14 million barrels from the U.S. Gulf Coast to Italy this month.
The NS Arctic, a Liberia-flagged oil tanker chartered by Swiss trader Vitol SA, left Freeport, Texas, on June 30 carrying 513,000 barrels to Italy, and was scheduled to arrive there on July 24, according to Thomson Reuters trade flow data.
The United Kalarvryta, a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker chartered by Swiss commodities trader Mercuria, left the Louisiana coast last month with about 1 million barrels. The Atlantic Explorer, a tanker chartered by Chevron Corp, left from the Phillips 66's Beaumont, Texas, terminal with 625,000 barrels, according to Kpler.
Vitol and Chevron declined to comment. Mercuria could not be reached for comment.
Libya shipped 3.45 million barrels to Italy in June, or 115,000 bpd, down from 9.73 million barrels in May, or 313,000 bpd. The decline came as attacks by armed groups forced the shutdown of major Libyan oil ports Ras Lanuf and Es Sider. (Reporting by Collin Eaton Editing by Toni Reinhold)