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Analysis: High local demand, policy changes hit China transport fuel exports

Singapore — China's exports of transport fuels plunged in January on the back of high domestic demand, a clampdown on overseas sales by independent refiners and port delays, but are are expected to bounce back in February because of stronger refinery operating rates.

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Exports of gasoline and gasoil in January dropped 37% and 46%, respectively, from December to 599,339 mt and 964,962 mt, according to data from the General Administration of Customs. But some refineries reported that actual export volumes were higher than the levels reflected in customs data.

"Given that January export levels for both gasoil and gasoline fell to levels that were lower than we expected, we expect outflows to rebound in February, particularly as refinery runs stayed strong during the month. Gasoil demand in particular was subdued in February," said Song Yen Ling, senior analyst at S&P Global Platts' China Oil Analytics.

"We expect 330,000 b/d (1.24 million mt) of exports for gasoil in February and about 250,000 b/d (823,000 mt) for gasoline," Song added.



China exported 956,607 mt of gasoline in December when outflows from independent refineries peaked at around 184,000 mt as they rushed to use up their 2016 export quotas.

But in 2017, independent refiners have not exported any cargoes so far as Beijing has withdrawn its permission and has only allocated product export quotas to refineries under Sinopec, PetroChina, CNOOC and Sinochem.

In addition, the month-on-month drop in gasoline exports was due to the decision by some refiners to keep more barrels at home in order to meet the relatively strong domestic demand ahead of the seven-day Chinese New Year holidays at the end of January.

PetroChina Guangxi canceled all its gasoline exports in January because of local demand, although it had initially planned to send out a total of 108,000 mt in the month.

"Normally, demand for gasoline is strong in the holiday season as people tend to drive a lot on short journeys, boosting consumption of gasoline," said a Beijing-based analyst.


GASOIL EXPORTS


While gasoline exports fell because of buoyant domestic demand, it was a different story for gasoil. Outflows of gasoil fell despite weak demand at home because of a combination of factors.

Only 23,000 mt of the month-on-month fall in exports could be attributed to the lack of quotas for independent refineries.

Platts survey also suggested that 10 key exporting refineries lifted their exports in January by 2.9% from December, but customs data showed a 45.9% decrease in exports, falling from a historical high level of 1.78 million mt in December.

The increase in planned exports included PetroChina Guangxi's plan to ship out round 78,000 mt of gasoil in January, resuming exports after restarting operations in early December following a full maintenance. The refiner actually carried out the plan and exported the volume through the Nanning customs in January, a refinery source said on Tuesday. But the figure released by the GAC stood at only 149 mt instead, meaning the shipments were not reflected.

This could be the same with local customs units at other places, such as Huangpu and Shenzhen for Sinopec's Guangzhou Petrochemical and CNOOC's Huizhou Petrochemical.

The data showed that gasoil exports through these local customs authorities in South China were 27,966 mt, which amounted to an MR-size cargo lower than the total export plan of 68,000 mt by the two refineries.

"Usually, the import and export data around the Chinese New Year period is quite difficult to match," said another analyst.

Moreover, market participants said barrels exported under the new general traded route were not recorded on time.

PetroChina's Dalian refinery exported 33,000 mt of gasoline and 40,000 mt of gasoil under the trade route, but the volume did not get reflected in the customs data. The customs department might need more time to figure out how to register those volumes, a source said.

In January, Dalian Refinery also had plans to export gasoline and gasoil under the general trading route. It is again not clear whether that data got reflected. Customs data only showed 96,809 mt of gasoline exported under the general trade route last month.

The holiday period also hit port operations. "The logistics for transporting cargoes from refineries to ports were hit as more workers took leave ahead of the holiday season. As a result, some cargoes could not be exported on time," said a port source.

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

--Oceana Zhou, oceana.zhou@spglobal.com

--Sambit Mohanty, sambit.mohanty@spglobal.com

--Edited by E Shailaja Nair, shailaja.nair@spglobal.com