China oil imports rebound in April, but weak fuel demand weighs on refiners

By Chen Aizhu

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China’s crude oil imports grew nearly 7% in April from the same month a year earlier, its first rise in three months, although weakening fuel demand due to COVID-19 lockdowns has dampened throughput at Chinese refineries.

The world’s top crude oil buyer imported 43.03 million tonnes last month, data from the General Administration of Customs showed on Monday, equivalent to 10.5 million barrels per day (bpd).

That compares with 9.82 million bpd in April 2021 and 10.06 million bpd in March.

Imports for January-April fell 4.8% versus the same period last year to 170.89 million tonnes, or about 10.4 million bpd.

Refinery throughput last month is estimated to have fallen about 6%. A decline of that size has not been seen since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Top refiner Sinopec Corp has said that since the second half of March it has lowered operational rates to about 85% of capacity versus 92.6% earlier in the year, after inventories rose amid COVID-19 curbs.

Refined oil product exports were at 3.82 million tonnes for April, down 44% from the same month last year and versus 4.07 million tonnes in March.

The exports, however, were still higher than expected as refiners rushed to ease bulging stock levels amid weakening domestic fuel demand. Companies were earlier urged to consider suspending overseas sales in April.

Fuel exports for the first four months plunged 38% on year, in line with a government policy to curb excessive refinery production at home.

Natural gas imports last month were 8.09 million tonnes, down from 10.15 million tonnes in April last year. Imports for the January-April period were down 8.9% on the year to 35.87 million tonnes.

Refinitiv tanker tracking showed LNG imports last month were 4.7 million tonnes versus March’s 4.63 million tonnes, sharply below the 6.73 million tonnes a year earlier, as hefty spot prices continued to hinder buying.

(1 tonne = 7.3 barrels for crude oil conversion)

(Reporting by Chen Aizhu; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Tom Hogue)