* March crude imports 9.17 mln bpd, previous record 8.57 mln
* Beats U.S. as top crude oil importer for March, year so
* Indicates strong stockbuild of nearly 1.7 mln bpd - IHS
* Pace to slow on maintenance, lack of storage space -IHS
(Adds quote on teapots' rush to use quotas, background on
maintenance, fuel quotas, comparison with U.S. crude imports)
By Chen Aizhu and Meng Meng
BEIJING, April 13 China's crude oil imports
surged to an all-time high in March to nearly 9.2 million
barrels per day (bpd), customs data showed on Thursday, far
surpassing expectations and overtaking the United States as
independent refiners ramped up their purchases.
The March imports came in at 38.95 million tonnes, or 9.17
million bpd, according to the General Customs Administration.
That compared with 8.286 million bpd in February and far
exceeded an earlier record of 8.57 million bpd in December.
Both the March and the first-quarter import levels were
above those of the United States according to data from the U.S.
Energy Information Administration (EIA), making
China the world's top crude oil buyer so far this year.
The shipments were in part driven by independent oil
refiners' rush to purchase oil after they received fresh 2017
quotas around mid-January.
"This rush of buying were mostly for March arriving cargoes.
In our case, the amount of crude oil we bought for March
exceeded the total for the first two months," said a trading
manager with Shandong Dongming Petrochemical Group, the
country's largest independent oil processor.
Last year, most of China's more than 900,000 bpd increase in
its crude oil imports was due to independent refiners that had
newly received permits for bringing in shipments.
China last week also granted crude import quotas to newly
qualified independent refiners to purchase from the
international market for the first time.
"The 9.2 million bpd of crude imports is definitely a
shocking number. That means China built close to 1.7 million bpd
of crude inventory in March, way off the chart from any
perspective," said Harry Liu, an analyst with consultancy IHS
Still, IHS expected a sharp drop to around 8 million bpd in
coming months as seasonal refinery maintenance picks up, and as
available storage tank space dwindled, said Liu.
PACE TO SLOW
Many of China's key state refineries are entering
maintenance in the second quarter, such as Sinopec's
Shanghai and Yangzi refineries and PetroChina's Dalian
China's crude oil imports for the first quarter grew 15
percent over the same period a year ago to 104.73 million
tonnes, or about 8.49 million bpd.
U.S. crude imports were at 7.97 million bpd in March and
8.17 million bpd in the first quarter, according to Reuters
calculations based on EIA data.
There was likely an element of catch-up in the Chinese data,
with North Sea crudes bought in December and January finally
making their way into the numbers and U.S. crudes exported in
February showing up as late-March arrivals, said Virendra
Chauhan, Singapore-based analyst at Energy Aspects.
The customs data also showed that China's March refined fuel
imports were up 10.2 percent on year at 2.7 million tonnes,
while exports for the month rose nearly a quarter on year at
4.67 million tonnes.
China slashed a second batch of fuel export quotas for 2017
by 73 percent versus the first around for the year, under so
called processing trade terms, potentially leading to slowing
exports in coming months.
Any drop, however, could be partly offset by rising
shipments overseas under a separate, general trade category in
which the government allotted 1.31 million tonnes of exports
quotas, mostly for gasoline and diesel.
(crude conversion tonne= 7.3 barrels)
(Reporting by Chen Aizhu and Meng Meng; Additional reporting by
Florence Tan in Singapore; Editing by Tom Hogue)