Surging Chinese energy demand draws record crude imports in January; near-record for gas

BEIJING (Reuters) - China imported a record volume of crude oil and the second-highest amount of natural gas in January, data showed on Thursday, on a surge in refinery buying and spiking heating demand from consumers in the world’s largest energy user.

Independent refiners raced to shore up supplies of crude after receiving higher import quotas for 2018 and as a Russian pipeline expansion started up.

China pulled in gas last month to avoid a supply squeeze ahead of another cold snap and as the world’s most populous nation prepares for the Spring Festival celebrations that start next week.

Crude imports rose 20 percent from the same time a year ago to a record 40.64 million tonnes, or 9.57 million barrels per day (bpd), according to data from the General Administration of Customs on Thursday.

That compares with 33.7 million tonnes, or about 7.94 million bpd, in December and beats the previous record set in March 2017 of 9.17 million bpd.

The buying spree came after China raised its 2018 crude oil import quota for the country’s independent refiners by 55 percent over 2017.

Russia, the nation’s top oil supplier last year, also ramped up exports through its expanded Siberian pipeline last month.

“The independents should be a major factor. They tend to increase imports in the first two months of the year, and some new players got quotas,” said Sengyick Tee, senior director SIA Energy.

January gas imports, including pipeline imports and tanker shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG), came in at 7.7 million tonnes, one-third higher than a year earlier and just shy of the previous record of 7.9 million tonnes set in December.

A massive government push to heat millions of homes and power thousands of factories with natural gas in northern China has led to demand for the fuel outpacing supply, while delivery infrastructure has struggled to manage the higher consumption.

Reporting by Josephine Mason and Dominique Patton; editing by Richard Pullin and Christian Schmollinger