Germany, Europe's biggest oil consumer, has more than doubled its sources of imported crude in recent months, according to shipping data, as its refiners increasingly hunt for alternatives to Russia's medium sour Urals crude in the wake of the Ukraine war.
In addition to boosting seaborne crude imports from existing suppliers Norway and the US, German refiners have turned to crudes from Canada, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon and Libya in recent months as supplies of piped medium sour Russian oil dwindle, according to vessel analytics provider Kpler. Rare crude imports have also been sourced from Guyana, Italy, Equatorial Guinea and Brazil, the data shows.
Before the war, Germany was the world's second-biggest buyer of Russian crude after China, importing 687,000 b/d of crude and 149,000 b/d of oil products from Russia in November 2021, according to the International Energy Agency. Most of the crude was delivered via the northern branch of the Druzhba pipeline system from Russia, with smaller amounts arriving via tanker to Rotterdam and its North Sea ports of Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel.
In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Germany initially turned to Norwegian crudes, with a particular increase in imports of grades such as Johan Sverdrup, Grane and Statfjord. It has also widened its import basket in recent months, buying more medium sour crudes such as Canada's Hibernia and White Rose, Saudi Arabia's Arab Light and light sweet crudes such as Algeria's Saharan Bend and Libya's Es Sider.
Combined, German seaborne crude imports from the non-Russian sources rose 320,000 b/d in the first three weeks of September versus pre-war levels, the Kpler data shows.
Germany imported its last seaborne cargo of Russian crude in June, the data shows, when imports from Norway peaked at 180,000 b/d and regular flows started from Canada. Germany had previously only bought Canadian crude on four occasions in the past four years and levels have averaged 60,000 b/d so far in September, the data shows.
Urals typically has a specific gravity of around 31.1 API with a sulfur content of 1.7%, and White Rose has a similar API of 31 but with a 0.31% sulfur continent, while Hibernia is lighter at 34.1 API and 0.56% sulfur. Saudi Arabia's Arab Light is very similar to Urals, boasting of 33.3% API and 1.96 sulfur. Meanwhile, Johan Sverdrup is heavier with an API of 28.7 but has a lower sulfur content of 0.8%. Norway's Grane, which is a heavier grade with an API of 29 and a sulfur level of 0.89%, is another potential alternative.
European refiners have also benefitted from greater access to regional grades such as Forties and Johan Sverdrup as Asia buyers switch to cheap sources of Russia's Urals and ESPO crudes.
Differentials for Sverdrup crude, for example, have fallen significantly below $2/b discounts to Dated Brent, with Flotta Gold and Grane also failing to attract buying interest, according to traders.
These crudes are not always a close equivalent to Russia's Urals crude but most are classified as medium sour crudes, making them a logical option for Northwest European refineries configured to favor diesel production.
Germany had already seen most of its refiners and oil importers switch away from Russian supplies since March. By mid-April, the government claimed the country had slashed its dependence on Russian crude to 12% of its imports from 35% before the invasion of Ukraine.
But Germany's reliance on non-Russian seaborne flows is set to grow further after the government last week announced plans to take over Rosneft's stakes in three refineries including the Rosneft-operated 230,000 b/d Schwedt plant.
The Schwedt refinery has traditionally relied on Russian crude delivered via the Druzhba network, although some of its requirements can be met via German and Polish ports.
Schwedt can import 5 million-7 million mt/year of crude from the German port of Rostock, equivalent to a utilization rate at the refinery of 48%-60%, and with additives and upgrades the pipeline's capacity could be increased to 9 million mt/year, equivalent to refinery utilization of 75%, in two to three years, the government estimates.
Crude imports from Poland and the port of Gdansk could add 2 million-3 million mt/year of crude supply, and crude will continue to be sourced via the Russian pipeline system from Kazakhstan, the government said. It has earmarked Eur400 million to upgrade the crude pipeline from Rostock.
The other German plant still processing some Russian crude imported via the Druzba pipeline is TotalEnergies' 230,000 b/d Leuna refinery.
TotalEnergies has said it looking to end dependence on Russian oil by year-end when EU sanctions on Russian imports kick in. Leuna will then be fed by crude coming from the North Sea, probably Norway's Ekofisk grade and other crudes via Polish ports, TotalEnergeries CEO Patrick Pouyanne said on July 28.