Today in Energy

April 14, 2017

More Chinese crude oil imports coming from non-OPEC countries

graph of China crude oil imports, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on data from China General Administration of Customs and Bloomberg L.P.
Note: OPEC is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. China’s General Administration of Customs publishes crude oil imports by weight. These values were converted to volumetric units assuming a conversion factor of 7.3 barrels per metric ton.

China is the world’s largest net importer of crude oil, and in recent years, China’s crude oil imports have increasingly come from countries outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). While OPEC countries still made up most (57%) of China’s 7.6 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil imports in 2016, crude oil from non-OPEC countries made up 65% of the growth in China’s imports between 2012 and 2016. Leading non-OPEC suppliers included Russia (14% of total imports), Oman (9%), and Brazil (5%).

On an average annual basis, China’s crude oil imports increased by 2.2 million b/d between 2012 and 2016, and the non-OPEC countries’ share increased from 34% to 43% over the period. Market shares for China’s top three non-OPEC suppliers (Russia, Oman, and Brazil), all increased over these years. While still comparatively small as a share of China’s crude oil imports, imports from Brazil reached a record high of 0.6 million b/d in December 2016, and imports from the United Kingdom reached a high of 0.2 million b/d in February 2017.

Growth in China’s total crude oil imports in 2016 reflected both lower domestic crude oil production and continued demand growth. After increasing steadily between 2012 and 2015, China’s crude oil production declined significantly in 2016. Total liquids supply in China averaged 4.9 million b/d in 2016, a year-over-year decline of 0.3 million b/d, the largest drop for any non-OPEC country in 2016. U.S. crude oil production fell by more than 0.5 million b/d in 2016, but total liquids declined by less than 0.3 million b/d because other liquids production increased by less than 0.3 million b/d.

Much of Chinese production growth from 2012 through 2015 was driven by more expensive drilling and production techniques, such as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in older fields. As oil prices declined during 2016, investments in developing new reserves also fell and were not high enough to offset the natural production declines of older fields.

graph of contribution to non-OPEC liquid supply growth, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook

China’s demand growth has remained the world’s largest in every year since 2009, increasing 0.4 million b/d in 2016. As China increased its imports to address a growing gap between its domestic production and demand, it surpassed the United States as the world’s largest net importer of total petroleum (crude oil and petroleum products) in 2014. The United States imports more crude oil and exports more crude oil and petroleum products than China.

Other factors contributed to an increase in Chinese crude oil imports. For example, in July 2015, the Chinese government began allowing independent refiners (those not owned by the government) to import crude oil. The independent refiners previously had restrictions on the amount of crude oil they could import and relied on domestic supply and fuel oil as primary feedstocks. Another factor is the Chinese government’s filling of new Strategic Petroleum Reserve sites.

EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) forecasts a 0.3 million b/d increase in China’s total liquid fuels demand in both 2017 and 2018. Absent any domestic production increases, China’s crude oil imports are expected to continue increasing. More information about China’s crude oil imports and various market forces that may suggest continued growth in non-OPEC crude oil imports are available in EIA’s This Week in Petroleum.

Principal contributor: Jeff Barron