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Oil imports soar on gasoline demand
( 2003-09-23 10:10) (Agencies)

China's crude oil imports surged in the first eight months as the country's refineries worked at record rates, partly to meet gasoline demand in the world's fastest growing energy market.

China has bounced back strongly after the economy-sapping outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, sucking in imports and underpinning world oil markets.

Chinese customs figures showed crude imports jumped 26 per cent to 57.4 million tons in the first 8 months of 2003, leading analysts to forecast record imports for the whole year of some 82 million tons, 18 per cent above 2002 imports of 69.4 million tons.

"Much of the growth this year has been driven by the car craze," said a Beijing-based official with China's largest state-run refiner, Sinopec. He declined to be identified.

Auto sales in China are running at about 3.3 million vehicles a year and will grow at 8 per cent a year until 2015, KPMG business consultants have estimated.

The car sector, along with telecommunications and building materials, was the pillar behind a 9.9 per cent rise in China's retail sales in August. Retail sales of cars in August were up 60 per cent from a year earlier.

"Strong gasoline demand and healthy refining margins have led refiners to produce at very high levels, requiring more imported crude," said an official at Sinopec's trading arm, Unipec.

Crude imports in August alone were 6.79 million tons, a touch below July's imports but 3.5 per cent above the same year-ago level, the data from the General Administration of Customs showed.

Chinese refineries processed record crude volumes of 20.82 million tons in August, about 5.04 million barrels per day (bpd), 16.8 per cent higher than the same month in 2002.

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