China's crude oil imports in September rose 7.4% year on year to 27.58 million mt or an average 6.74 million b/d, the second highest on record, preliminary data released Monday by the General Administration of Customs showed.
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Crude imports were last higher in April this year, when it averaged 6.81 million b/d. The volume last month was also up 13.1% compared with August.
The growth rate in September however, eased from the 26% year-on-year surge seen in the same month of 2013 on the back of a low base in September 2012.
Over the first three quarters of this year, China's total crude imports were up 8.3% year on year to 228.5 million mt, or an average of 6.14 million b/d, according to the data.
The year-on-year growth rate outpaces the 5.3% seen over Q1-Q3 last year.
GROWTH EASING IN RECENT MONTHS
The higher crude imports this year have been attributed to expanded refining capacity as well as the need to build both strategic and commercial stocks, analysts have said.
The decline in crude prices since the peak in mid-June this year, when Dated Brent was around $115/barrel, has also supported buying.
However, the growth in China's appetite for imported crude has eased in recent months.
In the third quarter alone, China's crude imports averaged 6.1 million b/d, rising 4.6% year on year. This compares with a 12.1% increase in the second quarter and 8.3% expansion in Q1.
According to Platts ship tracking software cFlow, at least 61 VLCCs arrived in China to discharge crude last month.
Among the total arrivals were at least two VLCCs and two Suezmaxes from Iran as well as a Suezmax from the Russian port of Novorossiisk, where Russia's Urals and Kazakhstan's CPC blend crude are loaded.
One VLCC from the UK's Hound Point Terminal in Scotland, where North Sea Forties Blend crude is loaded, also arrived in Tangshan in northern China early in September.
China did not export any crude oil in September.
Crude outflows have only occurred in January, February and August this year, bringing year-to-date volumes to just 360,000 mt, a 72.7% drop from January to September last year.
China's net crude imports therefore have risen 8.8% over the same period to 6.13 million b/d.
NET OIL PRODUCTS IMPORTER IN SEP
Meanwhile, China's oil product imports tumbled 18.8% year on year to 2.47 million mt in September while outflows edged up 0.5% to 2.15 million mt.
This means China was still a net importer of oil products in September, although net imports at 320,000 mt were 64.4% lower than a year earlier.
The drop in imports was partly due to a decline in fuel oil inflows.
Imports of No.5-7 fuel oil totaled 1.17 million mt in September, declining 17.6% year on year and 18.8% month on month, the customs data showed.
Fuel oil demand in China is witnessing structural decline because of lower consumption by the country's independent refiners, known locally as "teapot" refineries, which have started using more crude oil and a bitumen-blend feedstock known as asphalt in the last two years.
Fuel oil now accounts for a fifth of the teapot refiners' overall cracking feedstock, compared with about 40% during the first half of 2013.
From January to September, total oil product imports slid 27.4% year on year to 22.13 million mt, with No. 5-7 fuel oil imports falling 26.5% to 13.39 million mt, the data also showed Monday.
Oil product exports over the first nine months of the year fell 0.4% to 21.27 million mt, meaning China's net oil product imports were just 860,000 mt over the same period.
This is a huge 90.6% drop in net oil product imports from the first three quarters of 2013.
Detailed customs data, including imports and exports for other oil products, as well as output data from the National Bureau of Statistics, including refinery runs, is expected to be released next week.