China's March crude oil imports rose 4.5% year-on-year on stockpiling

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - China’s crude oil imports in March rose 4.5% from a year earlier, according to official customs data, as refiners stocked up on cheaper cargoes despite falling domestic fuel demand and cuts in refining rates caused by the COVID-19 disease outbreak.

FILE PHOTO: Oil and gas tanks are seen at an oil warehouse at a port in Zhuhai, China October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

China, the world’s top crude oil importer, took in 41.1 million tonnes of oil, according to the official data from the General Administration of Customs. That is equal to 9.68 million barrels per day (bpd).

The official March figure in bpd compared to an average of 10.47 million bpd for the first two months of the year. Imports in the first quarter rose 5% from a year earlier to 127.19 million tonnes, customs said, equal to 10.2 million bpd.

Reuters reported a higher import number earlier for March based on quarterly figures released in a customs statement and data from previous months. In the official data set, the customs department gave a lower figure for the quarterly imports.

Refiners, including state majors and private plants, began slashing crude throughput in February as fuel demand collapsed amid a nationwide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus.

But independent plants, also known as “teapots”, started cranking up production rates in March, as a plunge in oil prices triggered by the Saudi-Russia price war boosted margins.

“Teapots started to book crude oil from late February when domestic virus transmission was easing. Some of the vessels have arrived in March and more will come in April,” said Li Yan, senior analyst at Longzhong Information Group.

Li also expected an increase in oil imports in late April and May as Chinese refineries scrambled to purchase cheap energy after oil prices collapsed.

Chinese fuel demand has started to recover as companies resume operations and travel curbs are eased, although analysts expect demand across the full year to fall 19.1% from 2019 in what would be the steepest drop since at least 2004.

Chinese companies also shipped 7.26 million tonnes of refined fuel products overseas in March, 0.7% above the year-earlier level, the customs data showed. In the first three months, China exported a total of 18.02 million tonnes of fuel products, up 9.6% from the same period last year.

Customs will release detailed export data by product later in the month. Gasoline and aviation fuel led the growth in product exports in the first two months of year, with a year-on-year increase of 32% and 21%, respectively.

Natural gas imports, including piped and liquefied natural gas (LNG), in the first quarter were 24.66 million tonnes, up 1.8% from a year earlier, customs said.

In March, imports were 6.92 million tonnes, down 0.2% from a year earlier, according to the customs data.

PetroChina, China’s top gas importer, cancelled some contracts in early March, including piped gas from Central Asia and LNG shipments, as a seasonal plunge in demand adds to the impact on consumption from the coronavirus outbreak.

(tonne = 7.3 barrels for crude oil)

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