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Singapore — The collapse in oil prices has created opportunities for India to ship in incremental crude cargoes, but dwindling domestic demand because of a countrywide lockdown means that oil buyers will be treading cautiously as they try to gauge the demand outlook ahead, analysts told S&P Global Platts.

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As the country enters a 21-day lockdown period from Wednesday in its battle against the coronavirus, it is bound to witness one of its worst times for oil demand.

But despite that, analysts said the South Asian nation would still be looking for some incremental barrels of crude mainly from the Middle East -- both for commercial storage as well as for strategic reserves.

"Lower crude prices and heightened competition in the world crude markets will provide some relief to Indian refiners, but will not dramatically improve India's oil demand in the near term given the outbreak of COVID-19 amid a slowing economy, particularly with the latest announcement of a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus," said Lim Jit Yang, advisor for oil markets at S&P Global Platts Analytics.

The Saudi Arabia-Russia oil price war, which comes at a time when China's demand is weak, is expected to benefit India by creating an opportunity to pick up cheaper barrels, according to Platts Analytics.

However, although prompt crude prices are low, the collapse in oil demand and skyrocketing freight rates are expected to take a toll on Indian refining margins. This would make export-focused Indian private refiners, who are highly sensitive to margins, to trim throughput, said Sri Paravaikkarasu, Asia director for oil at Facts Global Energy.

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PAINFUL IMPACT

Average capacity utilization for all categories of refineries in India stood at 106.59% in February compared with 102.36% in the previous month, according to the latest survey of the oil ministry.

Analysts said the month-on-month rise in run rate was due to some major refineries turning units on-stream after completion of the last leg of shutdown programs ahead of a deadline to introduce Euro 6 fuel grades. India is set to roll out Bharat Stage 6, a local version of Euro 6 fuel grade, from April 1.

"Even state refiners won't be spared. With domestic demand coming to a standstill, they will soon see product tanks filling to the brim. While things look dire already, we are yet to see the bottom. We certainly anticipate more run cuts happening in the country," Paravaikkarasu said.

"Therefore, we do not foresee a big uptick in crude imports, barring some opportunistic SPR fills. Refiners will not be able to fully capitalize on the low crude environment," she added.

However, more Middle Eastern crude is expected to make its way into India in coming months, she said. "The bulk of incremental inflows into Asia will come from Saudi Arabia, along with some volumes from the UAE. The attractive Middle Eastern OSPs will prompt refiners to replace spot cargoes from far-flung locations such as North America and West Africa."

According to FGE, India's gasoil demand in March is estimated to contract by 18% year on year and by 17% in April. The country's jet fuel demand is expected to fall by some 22% year on year in March, 20% in April and 16% in May.

TIME TO STORE

India's crude imports averaged around 4.5 million b/d in 2019. The country plans to either get ADNOC and Saudi Aramco to fill up its remaining first phase of SPR over the next few months, or proceed to fill up the SPR on its own as the government seeks to take advantage of the low-price environment, according to Platts Analytics and Indian government officials.

The country's SPR under the first phase, which is managed by Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Ltd. or ISPRL, has a combined capacity of 5.33 million mt in three locations in southern India – Vishakhapatnam, having a capacity of 1.33 million mt, Mangalore with a capacity of 1.50 million mt and Padur, with a capacity of 2.50 million mt. All three facilities have been commissioned, and would together hold about 40 million barrels of oil. According to ISPRL, these facilities were 55% filled so far, with volumes close to 22 million barrels.

"As such, this is an opportune time for additional SPR filling of caverns at Padur as prices are likely to stay at sub-$20/b on an average over the coming two months before recovering towards $40/b by the year-end," Platts Analytics said.

Although senior Indian petroleum ministry officials said that the country was looking at mainly to the Middle East for incremental SPR volumes, analysts said India had its own set of challenges.

"India will try to maximize its crude purchase to take advantage of historically low crude oil prices but unlike China, its ability to do so is very limited given the amount of space it has available," said Amrita Sen chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects.

As far as SPR is concerned, India is behind major consuming countries, such as the US, China and Japan. The Indian Cabinet had approved another 6.5 million mt of SPR under the second phase at sites in Chandikhol in the eastern state of Odisha, which will have a facility to store 4 million mt, and Padur in the southern state of Karnataka, with a capacity of 2.5 million mt.