China, India Shrug at U.S. Crude Exports With Wrong Blend

  • Light, sweet shale oil doesn’t match refinery requirements
  • Middle Eastern supplies dominating markets in both nations

Two of the world’s fastest-growing economies have barely noticed the first year of unrestricted U.S. crude exports since the 1970s.

In the first year since the U.S. lifted a 40-year-ban on most exports, less than 3 percent have gone to China and India even as their demand for oil grew. India hasn’t taken a drop, according to U.S. Census data.

“The growing appetite of China and India is not met by the barrel that we are offering,” Harold “Skip” York, principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie in Houston, said in a telephone interview.

It’s not hard to see why. There’s a mismatch of what the U.S. is selling and what those nations are buying. About 98 percent of the American exports are light crude, Census data show. Most of China and India’s refining capacity of about 19 million barrels a day is geared to take heavy oil, Kunal Agrawal, Bloomberg Intelligence’s senior energy analyst, said by e-mail from Hong Kong.

Much of that light crude went to Europe and Latin America instead. Those regions are taking more than 20 times as much U.S. crude as they did in all of 2015.

The U.S. barrels are “going to places where there is simple refining capacity, like Europe,” York said. Tankers have also carried West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, from Texas to Curacao, where Petroleos de Venezuela SA operates a refinery.

By contrast, China has imported almost 3 million barrels of U.S. crude, about seven times what it took last year but still less than half a day of the nation’s refining capacity.

The situation isn’t likely to change soon. According to the Energy Information Administration, continued development of tight-oil resources, which primarily yield light, sweet crude, is expected to help drive production to 11.3 million barrels a day by 2040. The Chinese and Indian refineries remain in supply deals reached before U.S. crude was available.

Long-Term Contracts

“China and India are slow to shift to other origins because their refiners are tied up in long-term supply contracts,” Court Smith, director of research with shipbroker MJLF & Associates, said by instant message from Stamford, Connecticut. He estimated that half of crude imports into China and India are from long-term supply contracts arranged before the U.S. export ban was lifted.

Until those contracts end, U.S. producers might try blending with other grades to get a medium barrel that “could stir more interest from China and India,” said Michael Tran, a commodities strategist with RBC Capital Markets LLC in New York.

Cutting prices might also work.

“There is a price where someone in the world would take the U.S. light, sweet,” York said. “But you have to compete to take market share from another barrel.”

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