(Updates with additional comments from chief executive in paragraphs 8, 11)
By Jane Lanhee Lee
LAS VEGAS, Jan 9 (Reuters) - South Korean oil buyers are expected to restart Iranian oil imports in late January or early February, the head of South Korea’s SK Innovation, which owns South Korea’s biggest oil refiner SK Energy, said on Wednesday.
In November, South Korea won a six-month waiver from sanctions imposed by the United States allowing the purchase a limited amount of Iranian oil, but the country has not imported any crude from the country since September.
“As South Korea received a waiver and has been in talks with Iran about the first import volume, it seems (Iran oil) could be brought in late in January or early February at the earliest,” SK Innovation Chief Executive Officer and President Kim Jun told Reuters on the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
South Korean and Japanese buyers were expected to restart Iranian oil imports early this year, industry sources said in November. South Korea can buy up to 200,000 barrels per day of Iran oil, mostly condensate, an ultra-light form of crude oil under the waiver, the sources said.
South Korea was the third-biggest buyer of Iranian oil and the largest importer of Iranian condensate before the U.S. sanctions were reimposed in November.
Kim also said that SK Innovation, a supplier of electric vehicle (EV) batteries to Daimler and Volkswagen , may increase the investment into its U.S.-based EV battery manufacturing business to $5 billion to secure more of the market.
“SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won expects the U.S. battery manufacturing capacity to be 50 gigawatt-hours (GWh) by as early as 2025,” Kim said, adding that the investment will be focused in the U.S. state of Georgia.
The annual capacity of its global electric car battery production is expected to reach 100 GWh by 2025, and the company is aiming to cut annual production costs by 4 percent to meet demands from car makers, Kim said.
Late to the EV battery market compared with rivals LG Chem and Samsung SDI, SK Innovation has announced investment plans worth $3 billion since late 2017, to build new factories in China, Hungary and the U.S.
Under this investment agenda, the company expects its battery orders to double by 2020 from a total of 320 GWh of orders as of the end of 2018, Kim said.
“Our petrochemical business is affected a lot by things like oil prices. We will continue to keep that business competitive but we also need to have a new growth driver. That is our electric car batteries,” Kim said. (Reporting By Jane Lanhee Lee in LAS VEGAS; additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in SEOUL; writing by Jane Chung; editing by Christian Schmollinger)