Singapore — Russia has retained the crown as China's top crude oil supplier for the second year in a row in 2017, lifting sales to Asia’s biggest oil consumer by nearly 14%.
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Russia's dominance has prompted many market participants to believe that it might be tough for any other supplier to displace the non-OPEC exporter from the top spot even in 2018.
China's Russian imports were likely to increase as a new pipeline comes onstream, making it easier to bring in the barrels, while independent refiners deepen their relations with Russian crude suppliers.
"We estimate that Russian crude inflows to China will likely grow by at least 11% in 2018. There will also be additional availability in the seaborne market, as PetroChina will take almost all its barrels through the doubled capacity pipelines," said Wang Zhuwei, senior analyst with S&P Global Platts China Oil Analytics.
Russia remained the largest crude supplier to China in December, despite shipments easing 0.2% year on year to 5.03 million mt. Russia's overall crude sales to China for the whole of 2017, however, rose 13.9% year on year to 59.8 million mt, edging out Saudi Arabia from the top position.
China's crude imports from Saudi Arabia in December surged 31.7% on the year to 4.71 million mt, or an average of 1.11 million b/d, data from the General Administration of Customs showed. The big jump in December inflows raised Saudi Arabia's total crude supplies to China by 2.3% to 52.18 million mt for the whole of 2017.
This meant China's imports from Russia in 2017 were 7.62 million mt higher compared with inflows from Saudi Arabia, versus 1.48 million mt in 2016, signaling that the gap between inflows of Russian crude and Saudi crude had widened substantially in absolute terms.
Market participants were of the view that this would widen even further in 2018, as PetroChina would rely more on pipeline to take their term volumes from Russia, which in turn would push up availability of seaborne cargoes for other buyers.
"PetroChina is expected to take around 28.7 million mt of crude from Russia via pipelines in 2018, up from around 24.9 million mt in 2017," said Wang, adding that China's seaborne imports of Russian crude would rise about 8.6% to around 37.9 million mt in 2018, after taking into account new Russian crude supplies from private company CEFC China Energy as part of its term contract with Rosneft.
Traders said Saudi Arabia is also likely to increase supplies to China for CNOOC's new facility in the south at Huizhou, as well as for PetroChina's new Yunnan refinery, which were launched in H2 2017.
Meanwhile, state-owned Norinco's Huajin refinery will also lift its term contract volumes with Saudi Aramco to 12 million barrels in 2018, up 50% from the actual delivery of 8 million barrels in 2017.
In 2017, China's imports from OPEC members rose 7.1% year on year to 4.70 million b/d, or 234.22 million mt. But the market share fell to 55.8%, from 57.4% in 2016. Middle Eastern producers' market share also shrank to 43.4%, from 48%.
North America's market share jumped to 2% in 2017, from only 0.2% in 2016. The jump was due to an increase in supplies from the US, which surged to 7.65 million mt in 2017, from 645,703 mt in 2016, making it the 14th largest supplier to China.
The US also made it to the top 10 list of China's crude suppliers once in 2017 -- getting the ninth spot in October.
Unipec, the international trading arm of Sinopec, has fast emerged as a leading US crude oil exporter in 2017, according to markets sources who spoke to S&P Global Platts. Over January-October 2017, Unipec exported 100,675 b/d of crude from the US, Platts data showed.
About 80% of the volume that Unipec exported went to Chinese refineries directly, while companies, such as BP and Trafigura, also sent US crudes to China, a source with knowledge of the matter said.
The trend is likely to continue in 2018. Not only are refiners along the coast processing US crudes, but even inland refiners are also increasingly taking US grades.
Sinopec's inland refinery Jinan Petrochemical favors US light sweet crude to meet tighter emission norms, as it is located in the capital of Shandong province. Another landlocked refinery, Sinopec's Luoyang Petrochemical, said it has started to take US light crudes.
Some international traders said they plan to bring more light sweet crudes from the US for producing lighter components as more reformers come on stream in 2018. In addition, refiners will also need them to lift gasoline production to make up for the supply reduction from the blending pool.
Among the top 10 suppliers, the biggest year-on-year growth in volume to China last year was by Brazil, with shipments rising 20.6% to 23.08 million mt.
China has been taking 50% of the Latin American country's crude exports. Crude imports by independent refiners from Brazil also jumped 50.4% year on year to 7.83 million mt in 2017.
Meanwhile, the UAE's crude sales to China posted the sharpest fall in 2017, dropping 16.6% year on year to 10.16 million mt.
Shipments from Oman dropped 11.6% year on year to 31.01 million mt in 2017, making the supplier slip to the sixth place from fifth in 2016.
"US' Mars and Russia's Urals have significantly replaced Oman in 2017 due to the narrow EFS amid OPEC's production cut deal," a trader with Chinaoil said.
The Brent/Dubai Exchange of Futures for Swaps, or EFS, is a key indicator of Brent's premium to the Middle Eastern crude pricing benchmark. A weak EFS typically makes Middle Eastern grades less competitive than the grades linked to Brent/WTI, like the Russian Urals and US Mars which have similar specifications as Oman.
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