China is No 1 oil importer

Updated: 2013-10-18 05:25

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily USA)

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Driven by faster economic growth, China has passed the United States to become the world's biggest oil importer, according to the latest figures released by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

"China's steady growth in oil demand has led it to become the world's largest net oil importer, exceeding the United States in September 2013," the report said. It forecasts "this trend to continue through 2014".

According to the report, Chinese oil consumption outstripped its production by 6.3 million barrels per day, and that gap had to be filled by importing.

"China's net oil imports have gone up primarily due to rising consumption as the economy grows. US net imports have gone down primarily due to rising domestic production, while consumption has stayed relatively stable," Mark Thurber, associate director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, told China Daily on Thursday.

Thurber noted China's leaders are "extremely motivated" to limit the growing gap between oil consumption and production in China, which they view as a "strategic liability".

"This high degree of motivation is a good thing, as it encourages research, development, and deployment of new technologies in China," he said.

On the consumption side, such technologies include cars and trucks powered by electricity and natural gas as well as mass transit systems like subways and high-speed intercity railways.

On the production side, they include new methods of extracting oil and natural gas from shale — techniques that have played a big role in shrinking US net imports, he said.

At the same time, China's leaders should remember that being a significant net importer of oil is not by itself a major problem, he said.

The US has been a large net importer for many years — and the few disruptions it has faced have been more the result of bad domestic policy responses than actual external threats, he said.

"It was expected that China would surpass the United States as the largest importer of oil in the world, but the fact that it did this month is just a headline news," Jorge R. Piñon, the director of the Latin America and Caribbean Program at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, told China Daily on Thursday. He noted that Venezuela, Angola, Russia, Brazil and other hydrocarbon rich countries are fast becoming China's energy partners.

United States oil demand is down (from nearly 21 million barrels per day in 2005 to 18.5 million barrels per day in 2012) and its domestic crude oil production is up (from 5 million barrels per day of crude oil production in 2005 to about 7 million barrels per day in 2013) makes this event "less tenuous in the geopolitical relationship context between China and the United States", he said.

Paasha Mahdavi, a doctoral candidate in political science at UCLA, told China Daily "as China's demand for petroleum has increased markedly in the last decade, production has lingered, growing an average of only 2.2 percent each year since 2000".

In the meantime, consumption has increased an average of 6.9 percent each year, forcing China to import increasing quantities of crude oil year after year, he said.

In the past year alone, net imports of petroleum increased from 5.5 million to 5.9 million barrels of oil per day — a sizeable 6.5 percent increase, he said.

"The reason for this dramatic increase in imports is simple: with increasing urbanization comes increased gasoline consumption as more and more urban Chinese purchase automobiles," Mahdavi said.

As of August 2013, monthly purchasing was up 11 percent, reaching nearly 1.4 million cars sold in China in one month alone. As gasoline is responsible for the vast majority of China's oil consumption (since coal is primarily used for electricity generation), there is no stopping this skyrocketing oil consumption if current purchasing trends continue, he said.

"China's only hope in reducing oil imports without sacrificing economic growth patterns is to improve automotive fuel efficiency and encourage alternative means of urban transportation," Mahdavi said.