UAE becomes Japan’s largest crude supplier in May as Iran oil imports halt

Singapore — The UAE became the largest crude supplier to Japan in May after it halted imports of Iranian oil, creating a need for some its refiners to search for light sour crudes to blend with heavy grades from Ecuador. Japan’s crude imports from the UAE surged 66.1% year on year and were up 42.8% month on month to average 1.03 million b/d in May, preliminary data released Friday by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry showed. The UAE was the largest crude supplier to Japan in May for the first time since June 2016, while Japan hiked its total imports in May to the highest level since July 2015, a METI official said. Japan imported 1.5 million barrels of crude from Ecuador in May — including Oriente crude for the first time since May 2015 at 376,080 barrels, the METI data showed. Total Ecuadorian crude imports in May, which also included 1.14 million barrels of Napo crude, were the highest since April 2017, the METI official said. Refiner Fuji Oil, which had been one of Japan’s major importers of Iranian crude, has said it is using Napo as the main basis for replacing Iranian Heavy, blending it with other grades from the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi crudes and Qatar Marine. Fuji Oil finds Ecuadorian crude “very heavy” as a replacement for medium or medium-heavy crudes from Iran and is “looking at Upper Zakum and Banoco Arab Medium as replacement for Iran,” a source familiar with the matter said. Japanese refiners completed their imports of Iranian oil by mid-April before the US allowed sanctions waivers to Iran’s top oil buyers to expire in early May. Japan last suspended Iranian oil imports over November-January, with refiners importing last barrels from Iran early last October. Confusion surrounding shipping, insurance and banking rules under the US sanctions kept some other countries from resuming imports after the US granted the waivers on November 5 last year. Japan typically bought mostly Iranian Heavy crude from Iran prior to the end of the US sanctions waiver. The light sour Abu Dhabi grades have been fetching increasingly higher premiums over Iranian Heavy during the last few trading cycles, possibly making a case for Japanese refiners to consider looking for cheaper alternatives later in the year. “It’s never easy finding cheap alternatives because Iranian crude and condensate have always been among the most affordable feedstock grades … but Japanese refiners would need to diversify crude procurement options because Abu Dhabi grades are indeed rather expensive,” a trading desk manager at a Japanese refiner said.