Russia leapfrogs Saudi Arabia as China's top crude oil supplier in April

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as China’s top crude oil supplier in April, customs data showed, with imports rising 18% from the same month a year earlier as refiners snapped up cheap raw materials amid a price war between the two producers.

Russian shipments reached 7.2 million tonnes last month, equivalent to 1.75 million barrels per day (bpd), according to data from the General Administration of Customs released on Tuesday.

That compares with 1.49 million bpd in April 2019 and 1.66 million bpd in March.

Supplies from Saudi Arabia fell to 1.26 million bpd, down from 1.53 million bpd in April 2019 and 1.7 million bpd in March.

China’s total crude oil imports in April came in at 9.84 million bpd, up from 9.68 million bpd in March, but well below 10.64 million bpd in April last year, according to data released earlier this month.

Still, imports during the first four months of the year were up 1.7% on a year earlier as Chinese oil refineries take advantage of slumping oil prices.

Analysts have estimated that average utilisation rates at independent refineries, known as “teapots”, rose to nearly 70% in late April - their level before the virus outbreak - but that state-backed refiners will not climb back to their normal level until May.

Refinitiv’s oil research team expects China’s May imports to hit an all-time high of 53.7 million tonnes, or 12.7 million bpd, with record volumes from OPEC producers.

Chinese refiners are also receiving their first crude cargo from the United States in May since November, a shipment booked in March when oil prices started to collapse.

Customs has not reported imports from Venezuela since last October, as China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), Caracas’s top oil client, avoided lifting any oil from there to avoid violating secondary U.S. sanctions.

Some of the Venezuelan shipments, however, have been diverted to Malaysia for blending before exports to China, resulting in surge of Malaysian shipments that more than tripled in the first four months.

Reporting by Muyu Xu in Beijing and Chen Aizhu in Singapore; Editing by Richard Pullin and Tom Hogue