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Last Updated: February 1, 2018
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China is now the world's largest crude oil importer


China surpassed the United States in annual gross crude oil imports in 2017 by importing 8.4 million barrels per day (b/d) compared with 7.9 million b/d of U.S. crude oil imports (Figure 1). China had become the world's largest net importer (imports less exports) of total petroleum and other liquid fuels in 2013. New refinery capacity and strategic inventory stockpiling combined with declining domestic production were the major factors contributing to the recent increase in Chinese crude oil imports.

Figure 1. Monthly U.S. and Chinese gross crude oil imports


In 2017, an average of 56% of China's crude oil imports came from countries within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The share of Chinese crude oil imports from OPEC countries declined from a peak of 67% in 2012, while Russia and Brazil increased their market share of Chinese imports more than any other country, from 9% to 14% and from 2% to 5%, respectively (Figure 2). Imports from Russia, which passed Saudi Arabia as China's largest source of foreign crude oil in 2016, totaled 1.2 million b/d in 2017, while Saudi Arabia accounted for 1.0 million b/d. OPEC countries and some non-OPEC countries, including Russia, agreed to reduce crude oil production through the end of 2018, which may have allowed other countries to increase their market share in China in 2017.

Figure 2. Chinese crude oil imports by source


Several factors are driving the increase in Chinese crude oil imports. China had the largest decline in domestic petroleum and other liquids production among non-OPEC countries in 2016 and EIA estimates it will have had the second-largest decline in 2017. EIA estimates that total liquids production in China averaged 4.8 million b/d in 2017, a year-over-year decline of 0.1 million b/d (2%), and expects the decline to continue through 2019, according to EIA's January 2018 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO).


In contrast to declining domestic production, EIA estimates that Chinese growth in consumption of petroleum and other liquid fuels in 2017 was the world's largest for the ninth consecutive year, growing 0.4 million b/d (3%) to 13.2 million b/d. Crude oil import growth has been larger than consumption growth because of inventory building for strategic petroleum reserves. In addition, China has reformed its refining sector through liberalizing import and export restrictions. Since mid-2015, China granted crude oil import licenses to independent refineries in northeast China, which have since increased refinery utilization and crude oil imports.


Another factor contributing to increased Chinese crude oil imports is higher refinery runs, which increased by an estimated 0.5 million b/d in 2017 to 11.4 million b/d, driven in part by two refinery expansions in the second half of the year. A 260,000 b/d refinery in Anning in Yunnan province started operating in the third quarter of 2017. This refinery had been delayed several times because of tariff disputes with Myanmar, where crude oil primarily from Saudi Arabia first lands and is then piped to the Anning refinery. In Guangdong province, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) expanded capacity of its Huizhou refinery by 200,000 b/d, increasing its imports from various sources in the third and fourth quarters of 2017 (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Chinese crude oil import locations


Infrastructure expansions will likely contribute to further increases in Chinese crude oil imports. In January 2018, China and Russia began operating an expansion of the East-Siberia Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline, doubling its delivery capacity to approximately 0.6 million b/d (Map – China Import Locations). According to trade press reports, as much as 1.4 million b/d of new refinery capacity is planned to open in China by the end of 2019. Given China's expected decline in domestic crude oil production, imports will likely continue to increase during the next two years.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices increase


The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price rose 4 cents from the previous week to $2.61 per gallon on January 29, 2018, up 31 cents from the same time last year. West Coast prices increased over six cents to $3.09 per gallon, Midwest prices rose four cents to $2.51 per gallon, Gulf Coast prices increased nearly four cents to $2.35 per gallon, East Coast prices increased three cents to $2.59 per gallon, and Rocky Mountain prices increased one cent to $2.48 per gallon.


The U.S. average diesel fuel price rose nearly 5 cents to $3.07 per gallon on January 29, 2018, 51 cents higher than a year ago. Midwest prices increased by six cents to $3.03 per gallon, Gulf Coast prices increased over five cents to $2.87 per gallon, West Coast prices rose nearly four cents to $3.43 per gallon, East Coast prices increased over three cents to $3.11 per gallon, and Rocky Mountain prices rose one cent to $2.97 per gallon.


Heating oil prices increase, propane prices decrease


As of January 29, 2018, residential heating oil prices averaged $3.22 per gallon, 1 cent per gallon higher than last week and 59 cents per gallon higher than last year's price at this time. The average wholesale heating oil price for this week averaged $2.27 per gallon, almost 7 cents per gallon higher than last week and 58 cents per gallon higher than a year ago.


Residential propane prices averaged nearly $2.60 per gallon, 1 cent per gallon less than last week but 20 cents per gallon higher than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged $1.17 per gallon, 11 cents per gallon less than last week but almost 23 cents per gallon higher than last year's price.


Propane inventories decline


U.S. propane stocks decreased by 0.9 million barrels last week to 53.1 million barrels as of January 26, 2018, 7.9 million barrels (12.9%) lower than the five-year average inventory level for this same time of year. Midwest, Gulf Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 0.8 million barrels, 0.2 million barrels, and 0.1 million barrels, respectively, while East Coast inventories increased by 0.2 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 5.5% of total propane inventories.

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