* Feb Iran crude imports at 1.1 mln T, up 104 pct y/y
* Jan-Feb Iran crude imports at 173,744 bpd, up 30 pct from
* Total crude imports in Feb at 10 mln T, down 6 pct y/y
By Meeyoung Cho
SEOUL, March 15 South Korea's crude imports from
Iran surged 104 percent in February from a year earlier as
refiners hiked purchases ahead of maintenance shutdown starting
from March, according to the country's customs data and a
South Korea imported 1.1 million tonnes of Iranian crude
last month, or 294,069 barrels per day (bpd), up 4.5 times from
January and double from a year earlier, preliminary customs data
showed on Saturday.
In the first two months of the year, South Korea imported
173,744 bpd, up 2.3 percent from a year ago, and a surge of 30
percent from the 134,000 bpd that Seoul took from Iran in 2013.
Under the Geneva accord between Iran and six major powers
last November that took effect in January, South Korea and other
Asian buyers can hold to crude imports at the sanctions-reduced
rates reached at the end of 2013.
"The two refiners had to hike the imports ahead of
maintenance shutdown starting from March. Before and after the
maintenance, refiners usually import more to meet annual import
contracts," a Seoul-based refining source told Reuters.
Of four South Korean refiners, SK Energy and
Hyundai Oilbank are the only ones that buy Iranian
oil on a regular basis. Their Iranian crude imports can vary
from month to month as one of the two refiners that buy from the
OPEC receives the oil only every other month.
SK Energy will shut a 260,000 bpd No. 5 crude distillation
unit (CDU) and a 57,000-bpd No.1 gasoline-making unit in the
second quarter for maintenance, a spokesman at parent SK
Innovation Co Ltd said.
Hyundai Oilbank will shut its No.1 110,000-bpd CDU in April
for maintenance, it said last month.
REQUIRED NOT TO INCREASE IMPORTS
Iran's top four buyers - China, India, Japan and South Korea
- have been steadily cutting purchases over the last two years
to avoid falling foul of toughened U.S. and EU sanctions put in
place in 2012.
Together they cut oil imports from Iran by 15 percent on the
year to an average of 935,862 bpd in 2013, government and
industry data showed.
The interim deal reached last Nov. 24 between Iran and six
major powers eases some of the sanctions - including freeing up
some frozen oil payments - in return for curbs to Iran's uranium
The deal also allows Iran to keep its oil shipments at the
reduced levels of about 1 million bpd, less than half of
Iran's top four buyers, though, took 1.25 million bpd in
January, with increases in China and India outweighing on-year
reductions from Japan and South Korea.
Indian government sources said this week that refiners there
will have to cut oil purchases by nearly two-thirds from
first-quarter levels after a U.S. energy official reminded them
that Iranian import volumes were not to rise.
That was the first clear sign of U.S. intolerance of higher
exports from Iran, and came after India's January intake of
Iranian crude doubled to 412,000 bpd from the previous month.
Under the interim deal, South Korea transferred $550 million
to Iran this month in its first back oil payment, sources with
direct knowledge of the matter said.
Asia's fourth-largest economy imported a total of 10 million
tonnes of crude last month, or 2.6 million bpd, compared with 11
million tonnes in January 2013, the customs data show.
Final data for the February crude oil import data will be
made available by state-run Korea National Oil Corp later this
(Reporting by Meeyoung Cho; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)