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[BEIJING] China is estimated to be holding double the amount of crude in its strategic reserves than its official plan has revealed, as the world's top energy consumer takes advantage of a dive in prices to strengthen its position in the global oil market.
Based on data compiled by industry and consulting sources, China now has nearly 30 days of stocks to cover crude imports, far ahead of its official schedule showing 15 days.
In the next few years, China's cover could reach 90 days of so-called Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR), equivalent to the target reserves for the West's main oil importers, including the United States, particularly if prices stay weak.
Oil prices, which have lost a third of their value since June, hit fresh four-year lows on Thursday on the fading prospect that producer club OPEC will opt to cut output to support prices at a meeting this week, and as increasing Chinese and US stocks boosts supplies.
Analysts said that China may take advantage of ongoing low prices to further stock up its reserves. "China could buy another 20 million barrels by year end,"said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at consultancy Energy Aspects, referring to SPR.
Beijing rarely publishes its oil stocks for fear that the knowledge will give sellers an upper hand in price negotiations.
But for the first time last week China revealed it had accumulated 91 million barrels of crude during its first phase of building its SPR between 2006 and 2009, equivalent to around two weeks of oil imports.
But a second phase of stockpiling underway and due to be completed by 2020 indicates it has much higher reserves.
Energy Aspects estimates that China has already stockpiled 80 million barrels in the second phase. Combined with the first, China would have around 170 million barrels, equivalent to nearly 30 days of forward cover based on its crude imports at 6 million barrels per day (bpd). "In theory (China) could fill over 300 million barrels over the next few years to reach 90 days of forward cover," Sen said.
The data was in line with estimates from a source at an independent storage provider.
Developing the storage capacity for reserves is hugely expensive and a long-term strategy.
To meet a strategic reserves target covering 90 days of imports, analysts estimate China's SPR capacity will need to rise to around 600 million barrels, around 2.5 half times its commercial storage capacity and 3.5 times its existing SPR level.
China has jumped on two stretches of falling oil prices in the last five years to build up its stocks.
A plunge in prices during the 2009 financial crisis provided the chance to fill reserves in its first SPR phase.
In the next phase, four tank projects with a combined 88.1 million capacity have been completed and are estimated to be almost full after the recent fall, analysts said.
State oil company China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) is due to complete another 18.9 million barrels of storage in Jinzhou, Liaoning province, by 2016, they said.
Commercial oil storage, built by Sinopec and PetroChina , will add to China's overall inventories.
PetroChina's trading arm Chinaoil soaked up an unprecedented 47 cargoes, or 24 million barrels of Middle Eastern crude, last month. "My bet is the purchases were partly backed by stockpiling - they got a government mandate, or even could have worked their way to convince the government to stock up," said a China-based trader with knowledge of Chinaoil's trading strategy.
Refinery sources said about half of this would end up in storage, adding that Chinaoil may strike again should prices remain low.
The amount of crude Chinaoil bought was far more than it can immediately process.
Parent firm PetroChina has only three plants able to process higher sulfur oil like the Oman and Upper Zakum grades it bought.
Refinery sources said PetroChina's plant in Qinzhou, which was revamped two months ago to run such crude, was the most likely taker.
But as the facility can currently only take a maximum of 3 million of the purchased barrels a month, much of the oil will have to go into tanks, essentially boosting China's reserves. "There is limited room for further SPR filling in the short-term but there is some room for commercial reserve filling," said Seng Yick Tee, director of consultancy SIA Energy, adding there was plenty of commercial storage capacity to handle the amounts currently being imported.