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UPDATE 1-China Dec crude imports at record high, but 2013 growth slows

Chen Aizhu and Judy Hua
Thursday, 9 Jan 2014 | 10:44 PM ET

* Dec imports at record 6.31 mln bpd, up 13.1 pct on yr

* But 4 pct growth for 2013 down from 6.8 pct rise in 2012

* Net fuel imports down 28.8 pct for whole of 2013

* Crude run data to be released on Jan. 20

BEIJING, Jan 10 (Reuters) - China's crude oil imports rose 13 percent in December from a year ago to a record 6.31 million barrels per day as two big refineries reopened, but growth for 2013 was sharply down as demand cooled in the world's second-biggest oil consumer.

Crude demand for this year could rebound slightly as new refineries open, though growth may be capped by a lack of momentum in the broader economy.

China's imports of crude last year rose 4 percent, down from a 6.8 percent increase in 2012 as demand was hit by a slowing economy, helping cap global oil prices.

China imported 26.78 million tonnes of crude last month, or 6.31 million barrels per day, according to data from the General Administration of Customs.

That was 10.1 percent higher than November's 5.73 million bpd, as two big refineries owned by Sinopec restarted after planned overhauls.

A steady drawdown in commercial inventories of both crude and refined fuel also underpinned imports.

But imports were hit by a blast at a Sinopec oil pipeline in late November that forced the firm to cut production for at least two of its refineries in China's eastern Shandong province.

Crude arrivals rose by 216,880 bpd last year, down from an increase of 340,000 bpd a year ago, partly due to repeated delays at two refineries, PetroChina's Sichuan and Sinochem's Quanzhou, that have a total capacity of 440,000 bpd.

China posted a record annual increase of over 1 million bpd in 2010.

"Even in the absence of these two plants, Chinese refiners were still heavily exporting refined products. That suggests the country's refining capacity may already be in surplus," said a Beijing-based trader at a leading crude exporter.

For the whole of 2013, imports expanded 4 percent to 281.95 million tonnes, or 5.64 million bpd.

LACK OF MOMENTUM

Last year's growth was partly driven by a new crude importer, state-run ChemChina, that operates several independent refineries mainly in Shandong. ChemChina is believed to have used most of its annual import quota of 200,000 bpd.

Traders had hoped that more firms might be allowed to import crude in 2014 under Beijing's push to open up the market, but so far no new quotas have been handed out. Such a decision would normally need to be in place before the start of the new year.

China's crude imports this year should grow at a slightly quicker pace, with the Sichuan and Quanzhou refineries providing most of the additional demand.

According to Reuters estimates, these facilities, which process mostly imported crude oil, would be operating at a total of 300,000-350,000 bpd on average through this year.

The Sichuan plant is designed to process crude oil from Kazakhstan and Russia, as well as PetroChina's own productions in northwest China. The Sinochem plant, in the province of Fujian, will be eyeing supplies from Iraq, Oman and Kuwait, traders have said.

China's net fuel imports fell 28.8 percent to 11.08 million tonnes for 2013, the customs data showed, as dominant state refiners stepped up exports of surplus diesel and gasoline amid weaker-than-expected domestic consumptions.

The government is due to release national refinery throughput data on Jan. 20.

(1 tonne=7.3 bbls for crude)

(Editing by Himani Sarkar and Ed Davies)

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