Global Oil Market Gets New Chinese Traders Hungry to Taste Crude

Updated on
  • Shandong Dongming received first imported crude cargo in July
  • China may issue fuel-export licenses to independent refineries

They long stood in the shadows of state-owned Chinese energy giants, small in size and clustered in an eastern province along the coast. Now, independent refiners are wielding growing clout in the global oil market.

Shandong Dongming Petrochemical Group, the biggest of dozens of privately owned refiners known as “teapots,” illustrates how such processors may be coming into their own after years of depending on state-owned companies for oil. It began importing supply on its own this year after hiring two crude traders in Singapore, according to Shen Fan, a deputy general manager at Pacific Commerce Holdings Pte, its trading unit.

China is widening access for teapots as part of its drive to encourage private investment in its energy industry. That may boost imports into the world’s second-biggest oil user, helping counter a glut that’s cut benchmark prices by half in the past year. The small plants account for almost a third of the nation’s processing capacity, and if Shandong Dongming is a guide, may attract cargoes from Latin America to West Africa and Australia.

“Crude demand from teapots is a shining light for producers in the oversupplied market we are in today,” Wu Kang, a Beijing-based analyst with industry consultant FGE, said by phone. “If China is a force on the demand side in the global oil market, teapots’ expanded imports is one of the factors driving this force.”

The government has approved seven teapot operators to get a combined 35.3 million metric tons a year of overseas crude, or about 700,000 barrels a day, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. This may rise to as high as 40 million tons by 2016, according to ICIS China, a Shanghai-based commodity researcher. The plants are mainly found in Shandong, a province on the country’s eastern coast.

Shandong Dongming, which has a license to import as much as 7.5 million tons a year, started crude operations at Pacific Commerce in April and received its first cargo from overseas as part of the quota in July. The company has also hired two operations staff to support its crude traders in Singapore.

It’s been buying about 5 million barrels each month, including shipments from Venezuela, Colombia, Oman, Australia and West Africa, according to Shen, who traded crude and fueloil at PetroChina Co., the listed unit of the nation’s largest energy company, for 10 years through 2011.

“It’s an oversupplied crude market,” he said in an interview on Sept. 17 at his 39th story downtown office overlooking the Singapore Straits, where tankers carrying Middle East crude transit on their way to China. “There are a lot of cargoes on the spot market, often cheaper than term shipments. We would consider buying via term contracts, but not for now.”

China is forecast by the International Energy Agency to account for almost a quarter of growth in global oil demand next year. It’s the biggest buyer in Asia, a region that the IEA estimates will use 24.25 million barrels a day in 2016, or about 25 percent of worldwide consumption. Of that, the Paris-based agency predicts the nation will consume 11.35 million barrels a day.

“In what is undoubtedly a buyers’ market right now, this will be supportive for imports while competition among suppliers is intense,” said Virendra Chauhan, a Singapore-based analyst at industry consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. “Middle Eastern producers are having to compete increasingly with barrels from Latin America, in particular from Brazil and also from West Africa.”

Shandong Dongming owns two refineries, one with a processing capacity of 240,000 barrels a day in Heze in Shandong and another of 60,000 barrels a day in Lianyungang in Jiangsu province. They switched from primarily using heavy crude or Russian straight-run fuel oil as feedstock and are now running a variety of grades at about 70 percent of capacity.

The plants can process fuel oil or a blend of sweet and sour crude with average 1.5 percent sulfur and an American Petroleum Institute gravity of 16 to 35 degrees.

Brent crude, the benchmark for more than half the world’s oil, is down about 50 percent from a year earlier. Futures in London were little changed at $48.29 a barrel by 12:41 p.m. Singapore time on Friday.

Shandong Dongming’s ambitions run beyond purchasing crude in the global market. In coming months, the Chinese government may go a step further and grant fuel-export quotas to teapot operators, Shen predicted. While gasoline, diesel and jet fuel are currently shipped to overseas markets only by state refiners led by PetroChina, there’s pressure to allow more sellers amid a domestic glut.

“An exit is needed for oil products given a surplus domestic market,” Shen said. “It’s a natural progression and it’s possible that this may come by end-year.” Its plan to to establish 1,000 retail fuel stations in Shandong and nearby provinces within three to five years hinges on stable crude supply.

“There will certainly be more opportunities for the Chinese in the international market if its government pushes for increased liberalization of oil markets,” Peter Lee, an analyst at BMI Research, a London-based unit of Fitch Group, said by phone. “Traders will be eager to find out more about these teapot refineries.”

— With assistance by Sarah Chen, Serene Cheong, and Winnie Zhu

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