Russia holds spot as China's top oil supplier for seventh month: customs

BEIJING (Reuters) - Russia held on to its position as China’s top crude oil supplier ahead of Angola and Saudi Arabia for the seventh straight month in September, with shipments hitting a record as refiners rushed to buy lower-sulfur oil to meet cleaner fuels standards.

Imports from Russia last month were almost 6.35 million tonnes, or 1.545 million barrels per day, up 60.5 percent from the same month last year, according to a detailed breakdown of commodity trade data released by the General Administration of Customs.

For the first three quarters, crude volumes from Russia gained 18 percent year-on-year to nearly 45 million tonnes, or 1.2 million bpd, also holding firm its top ranking.

The lower cost of Russian crude and China’s shift to cleaner diesel was the key driver behind the record Russian oil purchases.

“Many teapot refineries are not equipped with hydrotreating units to cut down sulfur. That means they need to import crude with lower sulfur content to meet the cleaner diesel quality,” said Harry Liu of consultancy IHS Markit.

The widening spread between Brent-linked crudes and Middle Eastern benchmark Dubai also made Russia’s ESPO grade, priced off Dubai, relatively attractive, Liu added.

Meanwhile Angola, China’s second largest source of crude, supplied 11.7 percent more oil than a year earlier at 4.677 million tonnes, or 1.14 million bpd. Angola also maintained the second spot for the January-September supplies ahead of Saudi.

Supplies from Saudi Arabia were up 9.6 percent last month year-on-year at 4.276 million tonnes, or about 1.04 million barrels per day (bpd).

Shipments for the January-September period dipped 0.6 percent on year at 38.52 million tonnes, or 1.03 million bpd.

Russian supplies could climb further next year as privately run conglomerate CEFC China Energy agreed earlier this month to buy 220,000 to 260,000 bpd of oil from Rosneft, as part of a $9.1 billion investment in the world’s largest listed oil company.

Shipments from Iran were up 59 percent last month from a year earlier to 3.22 million tonnes, or 784,060 bpd. Traders with knowledge of Iran’s oil sales said the hefty growth was spurred by resumption of condensate lifting and as Chinese firms lifted more oil from joint venture productions in Iran.

U.S. supplies last month were 120,580 bpd, up 260 percent on year, and for the January-September totaled 4.755 million tonnes (127,150 bpd), after the country started exports to China last year.

China’s total crude oil imports in September climbed to the second highest on record at around 9 million bpd, buoyed by purchases from CNOOC and as independent refineries returned from maintenances.

Reporting by Chen Aizhu and Meng Meng; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Sam Holmes