Indian refineries step up oil imports from newer geographies like Mexico, Iraq

Indian refineries have consistently reduced imports from traditional markets like Saudi Arabia and Iran and have stepped up purchases from other geographies such as Mexico, Iraq and Venezuela while building inventories, as crude prices remain weak due to lower demand.

Availability of cheaper crude variants and softening of shipping cost have encouraged Indian companies to look at different sources to buy crude oil for refining, and has therefore helped them achieve a more diversified portfolio. India has also significantly cut imports from Iran, which stood at its lowest in almost 18 months in February, to keep it within the limits allowed as per the deal aimed at curtailing the latter's nuclear programme.

"Indian companies are increasingly importing from Mexico and Venezuela. The cost of transporting from these countries is higher than from the Middle East, but they are able to buy cheaper heavy crude," said Nitin Tiwari, vice president - institutional research, Religare Capital Markets.

The change in imports by Indian companies is helping the country move closer to its long pending target of diversifying its energy sources. Industry officials said while the share of imports from the Middle East would change, given the higher imports from other countries, the volume imported from OPEC may not fall drastically.

"It has been India's ambition to have a prudent mix of energy sources but the success of it depends on price dynamics and the diversification strategy.Now with the transport costs coming down and other countries, some of which are facing slowdown internally, offering certain and steady prices, it is possible for companies to buy from them," said Anil Razdan, energy expert and former additional secretary of Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas.

While the companies do not share their import data, Thomson Reuter's data, which is based on tanker arrivals, revealed a significant drop in imports from Iran which is facing sanctions.

According to Thomson Reuter's data, India bought 102,200 barrels per day (bpd) of crude and condensate from Iran in February, down 63% from January and 62% from a year ago. Essar Oil, which was the biggest importer of oil from Iran, shipped in 38.5% lower in January and is expected to reduce it further.

"Reliance Industries is buying more heavy crude from Latin America as it comes out $7-10 per barrel cheaper than the Middle Eastern oil. Their high complexity refinery can run very well even with the cheaper heavy crude," said Dhaval Joshi, research analyst, Emkay Global Financial Services.

According to Platts, India's imports from Saudi Arabia in January this year dropped 8.85% to 3.19 million metric tonnes. While imports from Iraq have seen a sharp increase in January, rising 56% to 2.48 million tonnes. Industry data suggests that Reliance Industries has been consistently increasing imports from Latin America, and in January alone, its imports grew 30% year-on-year.

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