China, the world’s biggest energy user, increased net imports of crude oil by 1.4 percent in December from a month earlier as refineries maintained high operating rates to ease a diesel shortage.

China bought 20.6 million metric tons, or 4.9 million barrels a day, more than it exported last month, data from the Beijing-based General Administration of Customs showed today. Overseas purchases for 2010 rose 18 percent from a year earlier to a record 239.3 million tons, according to the data.

China’s refiners, including PetroChina Co. and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., also known as Sinopec, boosted daily oil processing to a record in November to help alleviate a shortage of the transport fuel that left at least 2,000 gas stations without supplies.

“Import growth for 2010 beat our earlier expectations because of the extra diesel demand since the third quarter,” Bai Xuesong, an oil analyst with state-backed China International Chemical Consulting Corp., said by telephone from Beijing. “Refiners also boosted oil stockpiles on the expectations that oil prices wouldn’t drop.”

China paid an average $83.13 for each barrel it bought overseas in December, up from $78.68 in November, the data today showed. The average cost of China’s purchases in 2010 surged 29 percent from a year earlier to $77.05 a barrel.

Cooling Economy

“We expect this year’s crude import growth to slow to about 10 percent along with the cooling economy,” Bai said.

The nation may buy 5.1 million barrels a day from abroad this year, up 6.3 percent from 2010, according to the average of six analyst estimates in a Bloomberg survey.

China’s net crude imports expanded 19 percent in 2010 compared with a 14 percent increase in 2009 and a 9.7 percent gain in 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Net imports of oil products rose to 2.07 million tons last month, the highest since July 2008, according to today’s customs data. That was when the country ramped up overseas purchases to ensure supply during the Olympic Games.

Oil-product imports rose 13 percent to 3.96 million tons from November while exports fell 9 percent to 2.08 million tons. Net purchases declined to 10 million tons last year from 12 million tons in 2009, the data showed.
(Source Bloomberg)