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Analysis: S Korea looks towards US, Russian crudes amid Middle East squeeze

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South Korean oil refiners are stepping up purchases of US and Russian crudes, in the wake of a squeeze in supplies of Middle Eastern grades after output curbs by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

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The country's fourth-biggest refiner Hyundai Oilbank said Monday that it had purchased 2 million barrels of US Southern Green Canyon crude oil, the country's first import of the grade.

"We have purchased 2 million barrels of US Southern Green Canyon from Shell, and they will arrive in South Korea from next month," a company official told S&P Global Platts. The first and second cargoes will arrive in May and June, respectively, he said.

The company official said there would be no problems using Southern Green Canyon at its crude distillation units, which are equipped to run sour and heavy crudes.

Hyundai Oilbank, the only South Korean refiner that can run very heavy, sour crudes without the need for blending, is focused on procuring heavy grades and is not interested in light, sweet crudes.

The refiner currently runs two crude distillation units with a combined capacity of 390,000 b/d at its Daesan complex on the west coast. In addition, Hyundai Oilbank began commercial operations at its 130,000 b/d condensate splitter in November last year, which had raised its overall refining capacity to 520,000 b/d.

"We purchased the US crude due to weaker prices and low freight rates. We have no immediate plans to import more crude from the United States, but we will seek to import from sources other than the Middle East as part of diversifying supply sources," the official said.

Another Hyundai Oilbank official said the company might consider importing Eagle Ford from the US for the condensate splitter, if it can be co-loaded with Mexican Maya. It has a term deal with Pemex to import Mexican Maya crude to the tune of 50,000-60,000 b/d.

The narrowing quality spread between low sulfur crudes in the West against high sulfur crudes in the Middle East has made low sulfur crudes more economically viable to non-traditional buyers in the East.

The quality spread, typically measured through the Brent/Dubai Exchange of Futures for Swaps, averaged at $1.33/b in March -- the lowest since August 2015, when it averaged at 79 cents/b, Platts data showed. The EFS was last assessed at $1.24/b on Monday.

Related video: Asian refiners diversify crude oil supplies to reduce impact of OPEC-related output cuts


South Korea's second-biggest refiner, GS Caltex, also plans to import 500,000 barrels of Eagle Ford crude in June.

GS Caltex imported 2 million barrels of Eagle Ford over November-December, the country's first purchase of American crude other than condensate and Alaskan crude since Washington lifted a 40-year restriction on crude exports in late 2015.

GS Caltex is monitoring costs and economics of US cargoes on a per cargo basis, according to a company source. GS Caltex is a 50:50 joint venture between South Korea's GS Group and US' Chevron.

South Korea's top refiner SK Innovation is scheduled to receive 1 million barrels of Russian Urals it purchased earlier this year, as part of its diversification efforts.

"The cargo of the Urals crude is expected to arrive in South Korea as early as this week or next week," a company official said, adding that the volume is the refiner's first purchase of Urals in 10 years.

It is very unusual for South Korea to buy Russian Urals because of the shipping cost and the size of the vessel.

The Urals, typically loading from the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, are transported on Suezmax or smaller vessels as VLCCs which can carry a full cargo of 280,000 mt are unable to pass through the Suez canal. A Suezmax, with a maximum load of 140,000 mt, will be able to easily pass through the Suez canal.

Urals can be one of the alternatives to South Korean refiners as the OPEC-led production cuts had reduced exports of Middle Eastern sour crudes, pushing up their price differentials, the SK Innovation official said.

Despite the OPEC-led production cuts from January, South Korea's crude imports from the Middle East climbed 4.1% year on year to 154.41 million barrels in the first two months of this year, from 148.4 million barrels a year earlier, according to data from state-run Korea National Oil Corp.

The proportion of Middle East crude in the refiners' total crude imports further increased to 84.7% over January-February, from 82.7% in the same period last year, highlighting South Korea's deep dependence on Middle Eastern crude.

"The proportion is expected to decline when volumes from the US and Russia arrive in South Korea, while refiners are making more efforts to diversify crude supply sources," a KNOC official said.

--Charles Lee,
--Ada Taib,
--Edited by Geetha Narayanasamy,; Sambit Mohanty,