* Imports rise by 23 pct to 433,000 bpd in Q1
* China haggles over price, scales back purchases
* Indian buying may already have peaked
By Emma Farge
GENEVA, April 12 India has vaulted to the top of
the list of Iran's oil customers, overtaking China, in a first
quarter buying surge ahead of tighter sanctions against Tehran
this summer, data published by a leading industry consultant
Direct imports to India from Iran were 433,000 barrels per
day (bpd) in the first quarter compared with 256,000 bpd to
China, according to data compiled by Geneva's Petrologistics and
seen by Reuters via an industry source.
The Indian import figure was up by around 23 percent from
the 351,0000 bpd imported over the same period of 2011 and
significantly above the its 2011 average of 326,000 bpd.
Iran, like many oil exporters, does not publish its own oil
sales data on a timely basis, but the Petrologistics figures add
to signs that India has stepped up imports due to a cooling of
relations between Tehran and Beijing over payment terms.
India is also widely seen to be raising imports ahead of
tighter sanctions this summer when payments, insurance and
supplies are expected to be more uncertain.
Iran traditionally sells most of its 2.2 million barrels per
day of oil exports in Asia, where China, India, Japan and South
Korea are the four biggest buyers, although its exports have
fallen this year due to international sanctions aimed at slowing
Tehran's nuclear programme.
Industry sources said Iran's crude oil exports fell by
around 300,000 bpd to 1.9 million bpd in March, with customers
in Europe making deep cuts ahead of an EU embargo due to be
implemented on July 1.
Customs data showed that China's imports from Iran for
February were down by 40.3 percent from the same period in
2011 This trend was confirmed by the
Petrologistics data which showed that imports were down 39.4
percent in the first quarter versus last year.
"China ditched some term contracts due to what they
perceived as unfavourable terms and also as a bargaining ploy on
prices," said a crude oil trader.
India, openly disdainful of sanctions to pressure Tehran,
has been left off a list of nations given a U.S. waiver from the
measures, but is privately pushing its refiners for substantial
cuts in imports from Iran.
On a monthly basis, India's crude purchases from Iran have
fallen steadily from a January's 531,000 bpd when it first
overtook China as top importer, the data showed, suggesting that
purchases of Iranian crude have already peaked.
Petrologistics, one of several consultants estimating oil
exports by tracking tanker shipments, showed that India imported
404,000 bpd in February and 363,000 bpd in March.
Reuters shipping data showed a similar trend and in February
India imported about seven percent less Iranian crude. Many
expect lower volumes when new contracts begin in April.
The top Indian oil importer in the first quarter was Essar
Oil, buying 142,000 bpd compared with 88,000 bpd in
the first quarter of 2011, the Petrologistics data showed.
Essar plans to expand its refining capacity and will raise
the capacity of its giant Vadinar refinery to 405,000 bpd this
Historically, Iran's biggest Indian oil client was Mangalore
Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (MRPL), which bought 110,000 in
the first quarter, down from 162,0000 bpd in 2011, the data
Indian Oil Corp stepped up imports to 85,000 bpd from just
11,000 bpd in the same quarter of 2011, it showed.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles, editing by William Hardy)