Jan 15, 2019 07:08 PM

Record-Breaking December Caps Year of Strong Growth in Oil, Gas Imports

Imported crude oil is unloaded in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, on Feb 11. Photo: VCG
Imported crude oil is unloaded in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, on Feb 11. Photo: VCG

China’s oil and gas imports surged to new highs in December, rising 10% and 32% year-on-year respectively, thanks to a push to switch from coal to gas heating, and rapid growth in the petrochemicals sector.

Crude oil imports rose 29.9% in December compared with the same month a year earlier to around 10.35 million barrels per day, according to new data from the General Administration of Customs. This was partly the result of independent refiners rushing to use up their remaining annual import quotas before year-end. Gas imports also rose 17% in December compared with a year earlier.

The figures capped off consistent strong growth in oil and imports across 2018. China imported 462 million metric tons (509 U.S. tons) of crude last year, up 10% on 2017, while natural gas imports rose by an impressive 31.9% in 2018 to a record high of 90.4 million metric tons.

The surge in imports came largely thanks to the government’s efforts to move away from heavily polluting coal power to natural gas for heating, particularly in the north of the country during the winter months, analysts said. China has been forced to turn to imports to meet its needs because domestic natural gas production has been unable to keep up, according the Sun Xuelian, an analyst with commodities information platform China surpassed Japan as the world’s biggest gas importer in June.

Crude oil imports have been on the rise since 2013, but the recent growth in large-scale private refineries has led to a sharper increase over the last year, according to analyst Jin Lianchuang. While smaller “teapot refineries” (so named because of their appearance and relatively small size) have long existed alongside China’s state-owned oil giants, the government has pushed to consolidate the private space in recent years.

Larger private companies such as Shandong’s Hengli Petrochemical Co. Ltd. and eastern China’s Zhejiang Energy Group managed to establish themselves as major market players. Both companies opened major refineries in 2018, leading to a substantial uptick in the demand for oil.

Oil imports are likely to continue rising in 2019 “to accommodate the incoming new refineries while meeting the continuously rising oil demand, albeit at a lower rate than before,” said Kang Wu, the head of S&P Global Analytics Asia.

While gas imports rose, coal imports fell 55% year-on-year in December to 10.23 million metric tons, down 47% compared to a month earlier. This appears to be due to the government’s effort to gradually decrease supplies in order to maintain price stability, said an analyst with Zheshang Securities Co. Ltd.

Contact reporter David Kirton (

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