BEIJING China's crude oil imports eased in April from March's record high as refiners processed less oil during a heavy maintenance season, while exports of refined fuel fell by a quarter from a month earlier due to quota reductions.
China shipped in 34.39 million tonnes of crude oil last month, or about 8.37 million barrels per day (bpd), down nearly 9 percent from March, according to data from China's General Administration of Customs on Monday.
April's level was still up 5.5 percent from a year ago, while imports for the first four months of the year rose 12.5 percent to 139.12 million tonnes, or 8.46 million bpd.
"April looks more like a return to normal import level. Imports will likely trend down further in the coming few months as refinery maintenance season unfolds and teapots run out of import quotas," said Harry Liu, analyst of consultancy IHS Markit.
Arrivals in March hit 9.17 million bpd as China's intake topped the United States for the first time in 2017.
April's slower imports came as major refineries kicked off their annual maintenance periods, although lower crude oil prices still supported robust demand from some processors.
Oil prices have tumbled to five-month lows, with benchmark Brent crude down nearly 15 percent from a mid-April high, hit by the breakneck pace of U.S. oil output that have undermined OPEC efforts to rein in production.
Many of China's independent refineries, nicknamed "teapots", have nearly run out of import permits issued at the start of the year, another reason for slowing imports, said IHS's Liu.
He expected purchases to pick up from July after Beijing grants the second batch of quotas, although China has started to limit how much crude oil can be imported by private refiners..
The state planner said last month it will stop accepting from May 5 new applications from private oil refiners seeking approval to use imported crude oil.
April imports of oil products fell 7.8 percent to 2.49 million tonnes while exports of oil products [C-FUEXP] fell 25.1 percent to 3.50 million tonnes.
The fall in exports was partly because of a sharp reduction in quotas, after the second batch of permits issued to the country's dominant state oil firms for 2017 was down 73 percent from the first round.
(tonne =7.3 barrels for crude)
(Reporting by Chen Aizhu and Meng Meng; Editing by Richard Pullin)