Saudi Arabian Oil Flowing to China, Not the US

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Since 2000, imports of Saudi Arabian crude oil and refined products into the United States have declined from a high of about 1.9 million barrels a day to less than 950,000 in February of this year. The low point was 813,000 barrels a day in December 2014.

Saudi exports dropped 5.7% year-over-year in 2014 to an average of 7.11 million barrels a day, the lowest level in three years, according to Joint Organizations Data Initiative (JODI) data. When the Saudis persuaded/forced other OPEC members last November to maintain market share at whatever price, the Saudis had already seen the writing on the wall regarding exports to the United States and had turned instead to Asia to prop up their sales and their market share.

To maintain market share in Asia, Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s national oil company, offered its customers to the east the largest discounts in at least 14 years on its benchmark crude, according to a report from Bloomberg. The Saudis are currently the largest crude oil supplier to China, supplying about 13% of the country’s crude oil imports. And that’s not all.

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Saudi Aramco is joining forces with Sinopec to build a new 400,000-barrel per day refinery in the Saudi port city of Yanbu on the Red Sea, and the company is also working to double its exports to China by helping the Chinese build new downstream chemical plants and other customer-facing facilities. Saudi Aramco’s CEO told China’s Caixin Online last month:

We look at every province in China as a province for which we’re responsible, one way or another, to provide affordable and environmentally acceptable energy tools. Right now we’re investing in Fujian, but I’m hoping that in the future every province in China will see the Aramco name through our investments in refining, through our investments in retail distribution, gasoline stations, and through our investments in petrochemicals.

A London-based money manager told Bloomberg in February that Saudi Arabia needs to export a minimum of 7 million barrels of oil a day in order to meet the country’s budget requirements. To break even, the Saudis need an oil price of $80 a barrel, about 25% higher than where prices are today. The government can — and has — drawn on its $700 billion sovereign wealth fund to make ends meet, but even that huge rainy-day fund will not last forever if $50 billion or so has to be withdrawn every year.

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