(Adds comment, background, comparative figures)
By Tom Miles and Eadie Chen
BEIJING, Dec 10 (Reuters) - China’s crude oil imports in November hit their lowest this year as the country’s giant refiners reined in buying due to brimming storage and weakening demand amid a spreading global economic recession.
The world’s second-largest oil user shipped in 13.36 million tonnes of crude last month, or 3.25 million barrels per day, official customs data showed on Wednesday, a 14.6 cut in daily volumes from October and 1.8 percent down on November last year.
The lower import figure came despite diving crude oil prices and renewed efforts by China to build strategic stockpiles.
The month-on-month decrease in imports was the first since July, when refiners balked at record crude costs and lagging domestic fuel prices. [OILSTAT/CN]
Gao Shixian, a senior researcher at the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), played down the importance of the drop in imports.
“I think monthly figures are quite volatile and it’s dangerous to generalise a trend now. But one thing for sure is that China’s oil demand will not drop sharply. Instead it will only grow by a slower rate,” he said.
For the first 11 months of the year, crude imports increased 9.5 percent to 164.51 million tonnes, data published on the website of the General Administration of Customs showed (www.customs.gov.cn).
“Imports may remain anaemic in the coming months as demand is normally weak during the Spring Festival season, but the overall rate will stay positive,” said Liu Youcheng, an oil analyst with Hongyuan Securities.
Economic activity is often slow and irregular during China’s Lunar New Year holidays, which will begin on January 26.
“Oil filling (of government-owned tanks) was just a one-off factor and the strategic storage capacity was also limited,” he said.
China began pumping crude oil into its third strategic base in east China last month and almost 40 percent of tanks had been filled, after building up reserves last year in its first two bases, sources told Reuters.
The four bases of the first phase of strategic storage will be able to hold 100 million barrels of oil, or about one month’s imports.
While crude imports slipped, refined fuel imports rebounded from October, with a 13 percent decrease in exports and a 4.5 percent slowdown in imports combining for an 18 percent gain in net oil products imports during the month, according to Reuters calculations. For a table, please click on [ID:nPEK10632].
In October, net fuel imports fell by more than half from the previous month as China turned to stockpiles built up during the run-up to the Olympics.
China has not adjusted its state-set fuel prices since June, leaving its pump prices about 60 percent above U.S. prices, and equivalent to a crude oil price of about $83.5 a barrel, according to the NDRC.
It is almost twice the price of U.S. light crude CLc1, which was trading at $43.17 on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Jim Bai; Editing by Editing by Peter Blackburn