China to Cede Top Oil Buyer Spot Back to U.S. as Refining Slows

China may relinquish its new status as the world’s biggest oil importer back to the U.S. in coming months as demand from refineries slows.

The country bought about 7.4 million barrels a day of crude from overseas in April, overtaking U.S. imports of about 7.3 million, government data compiled by Bloomberg show. The Asian nation’s purchases may drop in the next few months as processing declines, according to ICIS China, a Shanghai-based commodities researcher.

China’s new ranking shows how the U.S. shale boom is reshaping flows of oil around the world as suppliers hunt for buyers amid a global glut. A surge in American production is reducing the need for the world’s biggest economy to import crude while the Asian nation seeks to take advantage of a slump in prices to fill its emergency stockpiles.

“China’s crude imports may be supported by more strategic reserve stockpile capacity coming online, but that’ll only happen in the second half of the year at the earliest,” Amy Sun, an analyst with ICIS China, said by phone from Guangzhou. “There isn’t much of an increase in demand from refineries.”

China, which is forecast to account for 11 percent of global oil use this year, increased shipments from overseas 13 percent to 30.29 million metric tons in April from a month earlier, according to preliminary data released by the Beijing-based General Administration of Customs on Friday. On a barrels-a-day basis, imports were at a record.

Emergency Stockpiles

Chinese companies that account for 12 percent of the nation’s processing capacity are scheduled to shut units during the second quarter, according to ICIS China. Crude imports by the world’s second-biggest oil consumer may decline to about 23 million to 24 million tons a month from April to June, it predicted March 30.

Benchmark Brent crude prices fell almost 50 percent last year as Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries chose to protect market share over cutting output to boost prices amid the highest U.S. output in more than three decades. Futures in London traded 0.3 percent higher at $65.10 a barrel at 8:40 a.m. local time.

China began increasing the pace at which it was filling its emergency stockpiles as prices slid, and is expected to make available more capacity to store emergency stockpiles later this year.

In the U.S., last year’s plunge in crude prices led to the steepest and most prolonged retreat from the nation’s oil fields on record. The country lost about 1 percent of the oil production flowing from its shale formations this month, data based on estimates from the Energy Information Administration show.

“China is currently making its way to become the world’s biggest oil buyer within this year,” Hong Sung Ki, a commodities analyst at Samsung Futures Inc., said by phone from Seoul. “We’re likely to see China’s imports gaining more from last year, while the figure will shrink for the U.S.”

— With assistance by Jing Yang, and Sharon Cho

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