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Singapore — India's oil demand has rebounded from levels witnessed during the lockdown, prompting refiners to raise throughput, but consumption will struggle to recover to year-ago levels in coming months and keep overall demand numbers for 2020 in the red, analysts told S&P Global Platts.

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With the economy struggling and COVID-19 cases rising, domestic demand for petrol and diesel -- they together make up for the bulk of the oil products basket -- will remain subdued for the rest of the year. This means that India may have a problem of plenty at hand as far as oil products are concerned, forcing its refiners to seek overseas markets.

"Outlook for oil demand in India is not looking good. High unemployment and poor economic outlook will cap demand growth, and yet refineries are running to meet their annual target. So product exports will remain high," said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects.

According to the latest data from the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell, India's oil products demand in May fell 23% year on year to 14.65 million mt, or 3.7 million b/d, reflecting subdued economic activity during the lockdown period. But on a month-on-month basis, overall fuel demand in May rebounded 47.4% from April due to partial relaxation in the lockdown.

In May, demand for diesel fell 29.4% year on year to 5.5 million mt as most commercial vehicles were off the road. Gasoline demand declined 35.4% year on year to 1.77 million mt. Jet fuel demand dropped 83.7% year on year to 111,000 mt as commercial aircraft were grounded.

But on a month-on-month basis, diesel demand grew by 69%, gasoline by 81.8% and jet fuel by 61.3% in May.

NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET

Platts Analytics expects India's oil demand in the second quarter to contract over 1 million b/d year on year, before improving and taking the H2 fall to 90,000 b/d. It expects oil demand to fall 400,000 b/d for the whole of 2020.

"Although the staggered easing of lockdowns from second half of May has provided some relief to state refiners, targeted restrictions will continue to weigh heavily on oil demand throughout H2 2020. Some states are even looking to re-impose lockdowns to control the spread of the virus," said Senthil Kumaran, consultant at Facts Global Energy.

India's economic growth slumped to 3.1% in the first quarter, marking its slowest pace in 11 years, due partly to the impact of the lockdown that began March 25. India's manufacturing PMI plunged to 27.4 in April from 51.8 in March, before improving slightly to 30.8 in May.

However, in the lockdown period, India's LPG demand has been a bright spot, mainly due to free distribution of cooking as cylinders among poor families. In May, LPG demand was at 2.32 million mt, up 12.8% on the year, while it was 8.7% higher over April levels.

Sanjiv Singh, chairman of Indian Oil Corp., told S&P Global Platts in a recent interview that LPG would witness robust year-on-year demand growth of 6%-7% in 2020. LPG demand increased as home cooking rose sharply during the nationwide lockdown. In addition, the government's decision to free give LPG cylinder refills to more than 80 million poor households will support LPG demand.

RECOVERING THROUGHPUT

Analysts said India's fuel demand would display a recovery path for the second straight month in June as the lockdown is mainly restricted to specific zones.

State-owned Indian Oil Corp. is aiming to increase throughput to 90% of capacity across its nine refineries by the end of June as economic activity gathers steam following the easing of lockdown measures.

IOC's crude throughput stood at 83% as on June 10, with consumption of all petroleum products combined almost doubling in May from April, the company said in a statement June 10.

"With the gradual lifting in lockdown restrictions, several downstream industries in the petrochemicals sector have resumed operations from late April and product evacuation from refinery stocks has increased gradually," IOC said.

Despite the gradual revival in demand, exports will continue to rise as the domestic consumption is unlikely to reach pre-lockdown levels.

May data from India's oil product exports is not out yet but April data showed exports of refined oil products jumping 36.9% year on year to 6.04 million mt. For the January-April period, oil product exports rose 16.3% to 21.64 million mt.

"Gasoil exports have remained at elevated levels in May and June, but shrinking product outlets in the export market will continue to pressure crude runs of private refiners in the coming months," FGE's Kumaran said.

(Corrects figure in paragraph 7)