UPDATE 2-China's Dec Saudi crude imports 4th highest on record

Sat Jan 21, 2012 6:53am GMT

* China 2011 Saudi oil imports averaged 1.01 mln bpd

* Imports from Iran at 555,200 bpd, +30 pct vs 2010

* Angola maintained 2nd spot, but volume down 21 pct

* Imports from Russia +29 pct; Iraq overtakes Sudan (Adds imports from Russia, Libya, Sudan; background)

By Chen Aizhu

BEIJING, Jan 21 (Reuters) - China's crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia rose to 1.12 million barrels per day in December, the fourth-highest on record on a daily basis, Chinese customs data showed, as the world's top oil exporter pumped just under the 10 million bpd mark.

Data from the China General Administration of Customs showed China bought Saudi imports were a touch below November's 1.17 million bpd. The record was 9.56 percent more crude oil from the kingdom last month versus December 2010 and wound up the whole of 2011 with 12.6 percent growth at 50.28 million tonnes, or 1.01 million bpd.

That would leave Saudi supplying nearly 20 percent of total crude oil imports at about 5.08 million bpd into China, the world's second-largest crude buyer after the United States.

The December Saudi imports were a touch below November's 1.17 million bpd. The record was set in December 2009 at 1.18 mln bpd and the third-highest in July 2009 at 1.15 mln bpd.

The world's top oil exporter was pumping just under record rates of 10 million bpd earlier this month, Gulf-based sources said, after a record rate in November at 10.047 mln bpd.

Imports from Iran, China's third-largest supplier, jumped 41 percent in December over a year earlier at 2.43 million tonnes, or 572,000 bpd.

For the whole of last year, China's Iranian oil imports rose 30 percent to 27.76 million tonnes, or about 555,200 bpd, the data showed, putting China firmly on the top spot of Iran's global crude oil clients.

China, however, has scaled back imports in the first two months of this year as two sides have yet to agree on the main terms for the 2012 contract.

China's crude import growth last year slowed to nearly a third of the blistering pace of 2010, as weaker economic growth likely to drag into the new year weighed on demand.

Imports last year rose 6 percent at an average of about 5.08 million bpd.

Analysts expected China's imports this year to at least maintain or quicken from last year's pace, bolstered by new refining capacities started in late 2011 and through this year and an increasing chance to build stocks.

China may add some 500,000 bpd crude throughput this year versus last, a Reuters poll found.

China may step up imports to fill tanks, as new depots were put into use and as oil firms become more willing to accept $100 oil, likely to be a norm for the coming decade, analysts say.\

RUSSIA, LIBYA

In December, China also boosted imports from Russia, China's fourth-largest supplier, by 45 percent over a year earlier at 2.02 million tonnes, and imports in the whole of 2011 was up 29 percent at 19.7 million tonnes, or 394,000 bpd.

The expanded supply from Russia was largely due to the start just over a year ago of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline (ESPO) that pumps some 300,000 bpd oil from Russia to China under a long-term supply pact between the two countries.

China also brought in some 67,000 bpd crude from Libya in December after resuming imports the previous month from the North African producer following a six-month halt due to the conflict there.

Angola, which retained its spot as China's second-largest supplier, however shipped in 21 percent less crude for the whole of 2011 at 623,000 bpd.

Imports from Sudan rose a modest 3 percent last year at 260,000 bpd, overtaken by Iraq as China's sixth-largest supplier.

Chinese imports of Iraqi oil gained nearly a quarter last year at 275,000 bpd, thanks in part to Chinese oil firms' development of several major oilfields in the post-Saddam country. (tonne=7.3 barrels) (Reporting by Chen Aizhu; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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