SINGAPORE (Reuters) - China’s crude oil imports in December surged nearly 30 percent from a year earlier to the second highest for a month on a daily basis, Reuters calculations of customs data showed on Monday.
The surge was bolstered by year-end stockbuilding by small independent refiners trying to use up annual quotas and crude cargoes imported for tests on two new private refineries.
December shipments into China, the world’s top crude oil buyer, were at 43.78 million tonnes, or 10.31 million barrels per day (bpd), holding above the 10 million bpd mark for the second straight month, and just a touch below the record of 10.43 million bpd in November, according to the data released by the General Administration of Chinese Customs.
For the whole of 2018, China’s crude oil imports rose 10.1 percent versus the previous year to a record 461.9 million tonnes, or 9.24 million bpd. This makes China the top crude oil importer for the second year running, after it first overtook the United States on an annual basis in 2017.
The 2018 growth represents an increase of 846,600 bpd - more than 2017’s net growth of 770,000 bpd - and roughly the size of consumption by the Netherlands or Turkey.
Peak operations at giant state refiners during most of the first three quarters accounted for the bulk of the import growth, joined later by new purchasing from two privately-run mega refineries ahead of trial runs, said Seng-Yick Tee of consultancy SIA Energy.
Strategic stockpiling at several state reserve sites that have just started up, such as Jinzhou in the north and Huizhou on China’s southern coast, also contributed to more shipments during the last few months of 2018 as China took advantage of steep falls in benchmark prices from mid-November, said Tee.
Independent oil processors, sometimes called “teapots”, played a smaller role in 2018 than in previous years due to marginal increases in their import quotas and a new tax policy that pinched their appetite for overseas crude.
“Unlike the previous two years when teapots led the incremental growth, state giants became the main drivers for last year’s growth,” said Tee.
China also exported a record amount of refined fuel products last year at 58.64 million tonnes, up 12 percent from 2017, aided by a larger amount of government export quotas to relieve a growing domestic fuel surplus.
Gas imports, including piped gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipped in tankers, hit a record last month at 9.23 million tonnes, up 17 percent from the same month in 2017. The previous monthly record of 9.15 million tonnes came in November.
The hefty imports were spurred by another year of strong demand growth for the cleaner-burning fuel as Beijing extended a campaign against smog by switching another 3 million of homes to gas from coal for winter heating.
Imports for the year expanded 31.9 percent over 2017 to 90.39 million tonnes, holding the top spot among gas importers globally after overtaking that position from Japan as recently as October.
For LNG alone, China retains its spot for the second year as the world’s No.2 buyer, behind Japan, after leapfrogging South Korea in 2017.
In an effort to avert the supply crunch experienced in the 2017/18 winter, state energy firms stepped up their imports of LNG and build up stocks in underground storage.
For details of December commodities trade
(tonne = 7.3 barrels for crude oil)
Reporting by Chen Aizhu; Editing by Tom Hogue