China Ramps Up U.S. Oil Purchases Before Trade Deal Review

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China, the world’s biggest oil importer, has ramped up purchases of American crude in the lead-up to a highly-anticipated review of the trade deal between the two economic powerhouses.

As much as 14 million barrels — or seven super-class tankers full — of U.S. oil will be loaded next month for delivery to China, according to estimates by Vortexa Ltd. based on provisional tanker bookings. If all those shipments make the trip that will be more than double the volumes set for August.

The surge in bookings comes before a review of the phase-one trade deal, under which China pledged to boost purchases of U.S. energy products. The talks, which were originally planned for last weekend, have been delayed indefinitely, however, amid deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Chinese imports of U.S. goods in the first six months of the year only reached about 23% of the total target under the trade agreement for 2020, Bloomberg calculations based on data from General Administration of Customs show. The nation’s refineries have been cranking up run rates as the economy emerges from a virus-induced slump, which may be another reason for the boost in buying.

“The rise in U.S. crude purchases is likely politically driven,” said Serena Huang, a senior analyst at Vortexa, a market analytics firm. “China is still sitting on large stockpiles of oil, and current U.S. crude prices are not much more favorable than their Middle East competitors.”

Oil-refining heavyweights PetroChina Co. and Sinopec chartered more than 40% of the China-bound supertankers set for September loading as of Aug. 17, Vortexa’s data show. Grades such as WTI Midland and Mars were among the types of American oil purchased by China, but they weren’t always cheaper than alternative feedstock from other regions, according to traders.

A Beijing-based Sinopec official at the company’s press office and an official at China National Petroleum Corp., parent company of PetroChina, both declined to comment on the matter.

China bought an average about 568,500 tons, or 4.2 million barrels, of U.S. oil a month in May and June, General Administration of China Customs data show. The country imported no American oil for the previous five months as relations between the two countries deteriorated amid the coronavirus.

China’s energy demand has rebounded in-line with an uptick in its economy, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit. “These new orders for U.S. crude will help to improve China’s overall progress toward the U.S.-China phase one trade deal targets,” he said.

— With assistance by Sharon Cho, Sarah Chen, and Serene Cheong

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