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China has raised 2018 crude oil import quotas for independent oil companies by a sharp 63% from 2017 levels, a move that triggered a rally in the Middle East sour crude complex to a three-year high, but traders and analysts said the quotas would still fall short of Chinese independent refiners' requirements.

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The country's Ministry of Commerce Wednesday said total crude oil import quotas for independent oil companies in 2018 would be 142.42 million mt (2.86 million b/d), compared with 87.6 million mt (1.76 million b/d) that the government had set for 2017, according to calculations by S&P Global Platts. But actual quotas awarded so far in 2017 stand at 103.52 million mt.

Sources said the 2018 allocations would have included volumes reserved by new applicants, as well as those in the waiting list for the final approval.

Wang Zhuwei, senior analyst with Platts China Oil Analytics said the total quota requirement for 2018 could be close to 150 million mt, judging from the requirements by applicants which are in the pipeline to receive quotas, as well as two new refining companies which are expected to come on stream in late 2018.



The quotas will be shared among more than 60 companies, including 40 independent refineries, ChemChina, Norinco Huajin, as well as the two new refining projects, he added.

Refineries built and operated by state-owned companies -- Sinopec, PetroChina, CNOOC and Sinochem -- do not need quotas to import crude oil. But all other companies including independent refiners, state-owned and independent trading companies, as well as some state-owned refining companies such as ChemChina and Norinco, need quotas to import crude oil.

In 2017, Beijing has so far has allocated 103.52 million mt of quotas to the non-state sector, about 18% higher than the initial volume of 87.6 million mt set by MOFCOM. Out of this, about 96.84 million mt have gone to 31 refineries, including ChemChina and Norinco, as well as other independent refineries.


MARKET IMPACT


The Middle East sour crude complex rallied to a three-year high on Wednesday amid expectations of an uptick in demand from China following news of the 63% increase in the 2018 crude oil import quotas for Chinese independent oil companies.

The spread between the January cash Dubai assessment and the same-month Dubai swap assessment was assessed at a premium of 89 cents/b at the 0830 GMT close of Asian trade Wednesday, the highest since July 25, 2014 when the equivalent spread was assessed at 95 cents/b, Platts data shows.

The spread has averaged a premium of 76 cents/b in November to date, up from an average premium of 43 cents/b in October and the strongest since June 2014 when it averaged $1.05/b. The Middle East crude structure in November has sustained its strength for a third successive month, with the impact of OPEC-led production cuts being felt by Asian end-users at a time when demand usually peaks.


WONFULL, CHAMBROAD EXPECT FULL QUOTAS


Wonfull Petrochemical, along with a few other refineries, such as Chambroad Petrochemical and Baota Petrochemical, saw their quotas reduced in 2017, but they hope to get full quotas for 2018, as they have ramped up imports in the first 10 months of this year.

Wonfull imported 2.626 million mt of crude oil in the 10-month period, which was exactly the quota amount allocated this year, according to a company source. "We hope to get our full allocation of 4.16 million mt next year," the source added.

Chambroad also expects to receive total quotas of 3.31 million mt for 2018. The refinery this year was allocated around 56.8% of its ceiling quota, which was 1.88 million mt.

In addition to 31 refineries that have been approved to receive quotas, another five independent refineries, all in Shandong, have been waiting for the final approval of quotas -- amounting to 9.78 million mt/year -- by the National Development and Reform Commission.

In addition, seven refineries are awaiting review for crude quota applications. These comprise five independent refineries in Shandong and two in Liaoning, which are expected to receive total quotas amounting to 13 million mt/year.


ADDITIONAL QUOTAS FOR HENGLI, ZHEJIANG


Two new refining companies Hengli Petrochemical and Zhejiang Petrochemical, which have targeted to start up in late 2018, are also preparing to apply for import quotas.

Although NDRC has stated that it would not accept applications for new quotas after the May 4 deadline, the two companies are widely expected to be granted import quotas.

"The government has approved those projects. It is unlikely that we cannot get crude import quotas," said a source with Hengli Petrochemical.

The 20 million mt/year Hengli Petrochemical, which targets to come on stream around October 2018, plans to apply for a quota of 20 million mt/year.

The 40 million mt/year Zhejiang Petrochemical in eastern Zhejiang province also plans to apply for a quota of 20 million mt/year. The first 20 million mt/year phase of the complex is expected to start around November 2018, according to a company source.

The refineries have been negotiating with domestic and international suppliers to procure crude oil.

-- Analysis by Daisy Xu, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Sambit Mohanty, sambit.mohanty@spglobal.com, sambit.mohanty@spglobal.com, Irene Tang, newsdesk@spglobal.com