China’s imported 8.42 million tonnes of Russian oil in May – a record amount – as refiners snapped up cheap crude after Russia was hit with sanctions because of its invasion of Ukraine, customs data revealed on Monday.
Imports – relayed via the East Siberia Pacific Ocean pipeline and shipped from ports in Europe and the Far East – jumped by more than half from a year earlier, surpassing Saudi Arabia as the top supplier.
That was close to 2 million barrels per day, up a quarter from 1.59 million bpd in April, according to data from the Chinese General Administration of Customs.
And while China’s overall crude oil demand has been dampened by Covid-19 curbs and a slowing economy, leading importers, including refining giant Sinopec and trader Zhenhua Oil, stepped up buying cheaper Russian crude on top of sanctioned supplies from Iran and Venezuela. That allowed them to scale back competing supplies from West Africa and Brazil.
Saudi Arabia trailed as the second-largest supplier, with May volumes up 9% on year at 7.82 million tonnes, or 1.84 million bpd. This was down from April’s 2.17 million bpd.
The data showed China imported 260,000 tonnes of Iranian crude oil last month, its third shipment of Iran oil since last December.
Despite US sanctions on Iran, China has kept taking Iranian oil, usually passed off as supplies from other countries. The import levels are roughly equivalent to 7% of China’s total crude oil imports.
China’s overall crude oil imports rose nearly 12% in May from a low base a year earlier to 10.8 million bpd, versus the 2021 average of 10.3 million bpd.
Customs reported zero imports from Venezuela. State oil firms have shunned purchases since late 2019 for fear of falling foul of secondary US sanctions.
Imports from Malaysia, often used as a transfer point in the last two years for oil originating from Iran and Venezuela, amounted to 2.2 million tonnes, steady versus April but more than double the year-earlier level.
Imports from Brazil fell 19% from a year earlier to 2.2 million tonnes, as supplies from the Latin American exporter faced cheaper competition from Iranian and Russian barrels.
Separately, data also showed China’s imports of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) amounted to nearly 400,000 tonnes last month, 56% more than May of 2021.
For the first five months, imports of Russian LNG – from mostly Sakhalin-2 project in the Far East and Yamal LNG in Russian Arctic – rose 22% on the year to 1.84 million tonnes, according to customs data.
• Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard
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