* Asian imports at highest since March - Reuters data
* Weak Brent-Dubai spread encourages shipments
* Extra volumes may replace Iranian supplies - trader
(Adds table, background)
By Emma Farge
LONDON, Dec 20 Asian buyers will step up
monthly imports of West African crude oil by nearly 40 percent
in January to around 1.75 million barrels per day (bpd),
according to Reuters calculations, as some buyers switch from
In December, crude oil loadings were exceptionally low at
1.26 million bpd, the data showed. The January figure is the
highest since last March, according to calculations based on
tanker data from trade sources.
The increase comes on the back of higher demand from China,
India and Taiwan, boosting the total number of monthly cargoes
from 41 in December to around 57 in January.
West African countries Nigeria and Angola are the
continent's two largest exporters, shipping over 3 million bpd
to international markets.
Asian buyers may temporarily have increased buying of West
African oil to compensate for a dip in Iranian imports,
according to a West African crude oil trader.
"Most markets will have to help out to replace Iran,
including West Africa," he said.
Top Chinese refiner Sinopec Corp will buy less
than half the crude it typically imports from Iran, trade
sources said, as the two haggle over terms against a backdrop of
rising international pressure on
West African crude oil grades are typically lighter and
sweeter than Iranian grades, so not all Asian refiners would be
able to switch easily from one to another.
The European Union is also mulling an embargo on Iranian oil
ahead of a January meeting.
Shipping records showed that China took an unusually high
volume of West African shipments from the January programme.
The number of tankers was 31 in January, with Sinopec's
trading arm Unipec, Chinese trader Kangqi and Chinese chemical
company Sinochem all taking some volumes. This
compared with just 25 tankers reported in December.
Other trade sources said the higher volumes to Asia were a
result of a profitable arbitrage between the two regions.
The premium of Brent over Dubai crude has strengthened in
January to around $3, but it still far below levels above $7
touched early in 2011. <BFO/DUB-1M>
Lower demand from U.S. and European refiners due partly to
higher Libyan export volumes may also have stoked Asian buying,
they said. Sunoco Inc is planning to shut permanently
its Marcus Hook refinery in Pennsylvania due to grim regional
U.S. refiners bought at least 11 tankers or around 269,000
bpd from the January loading programme, oil traders said,
although the total arbitrage volume could be higher as some oil
majors like BP have refining assets all over the world.
Normal monthly U.S. arbitrage volumes are at least 1 million
(Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Jane Baird)