* May LNG imports up 22 pct y/y to 2.39 mln T -Customs
* May coal imports up 33 pct y/y to 9.5 mln T -Customs
* May electricity sales up 4.9 pct y/y -Econ ministry (Adds links to TABLEs on LNG, coal import details)
By Cho Mee-young
SEOUL, June 15 (Reuters) - South Korea’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal imports posted double-digit growth in May from year-ago levels as the economic recovery in the world’s second-largest LNG buyer boosted consumption.
The world’s fifth-largest crude oil importer has, like other countries, been grappling to contain inflation partly due to crude price rallies, and has seen a rise in demand for alternatives like coal and LNG for power generation.
A need to replenish LNG stocks after assisting quake-stricken Japan with supplies also contributed to higher imports.
LNG imports by South Korea jumped 22 percent to 2.39 million tonnes in May from a year earlier, Korea Customs Service data showed on Wednesday.
The country’s coal imports also soared 33 percent to 9.5 million tonnes last month from 7.2 million tonnes a year ago, the customs data showed.
“Power-generating costs of LNG are now lower than those of oil, driving gas consumption,” Cheong Yu-seok, an analyst at LIG Investment & Securities, said.
A separate statement from the economy ministry on Wednesday showed average power-generating costs of oil, LNG and coal in May were 86,607 won ($80), 63,533 won and 21,161 won per gigacalorie, respectively.
Indonesia was the No. 1 LNG seller to South Korea with about 30 percent of the imports in May, while Australia and Indonesia sold the most coal at about 30 percent each.
Most LNG deals in Asia are on term contracts with prices linked to crude benchmarks, the most common one known as the Japan Crude Cocktail.
The Australian thermal coal index from globalCOAL, a benchmark for Asia, hit a 2011 high of $141.25 a tonne due to floods in Queensland, Australia, and has since retraced to $117.75 a tonne as of Tuesday.
South Korea imported 76 million barrels of crude oil in April, up more than 8 percent year on year, with data for May due later this month.
Brent crude prices have posted gains for the last three quarters, with a peak gain of nearly 24 percent in the first quarter of 2011, and is on track for a slight 3 percent gain for the second quarter. LCOc1
The ministry statement also said the country’s electricity sales last month rose 4.9 percent from a year ago, gaining for a 26th consecutive month. Sales for industrial use accounted for 58.3 percent and showed a 8.5 percent year-on-year rise.
Analysts and industry experts have forecast South Korea’s overall LNG imports will increase this year helped by an economic rebound, even though costs could rise if higher Japanese demand boosts global prices.
South Korea’s economy minister Choi Joong-kyung told the Reuters Energy and Climate Summit on Tuesday that the country has already signed deals to meet around 95 percent of LNG demand in 2011, and expected the country’s gas inventory to continue to rise ahead of the next winter season.
KOGAS, South Korea’s sole LNG provider, said on Monday it had sold 92.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas domestically in May, up 8.3 percent from a year earlier.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy, which grew more than 6 percent last year, is expected to continue to post robust growth this year and fuel demand for energy.
However, the government had declared a “war on inflation” earlier this year, and has forbidden state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp from passing increased fuel costs on to end users.
Government data showed annual consumer inflation eased in May to 4.1 percent, above the central bank’s 2-4 percent target band.
In Japan, the world’s top LNG buyer, utilities have been scrambling for fuel to replace nuclear power supply damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11. South Korea said in March that state-run Korea Gas Corp (KOGAS) would supply 400,000-500,000 tonnes of LNG to quake-hit Japan.
$1 = 1081.250 Korean won Additional reporting by Seongbin Kang; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner