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Viktor Katona

Viktor Katona

Viktor Katona is an Group Physical Trader at MOL Group and Expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, currently based in Budapest.

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What Is Behind The Surge Of Russian Oil Exports To India?


In the first five months of 2017, Indian companies have purchased more than 1 million tons of Russian crude supplied from Black Sea ports. In and of itself, there would be nothing extraordinary about it, were it not for the almost complete lack of supplies before 2017. India already surpassed its average Urals imports twentyfold (the past few years’ annual import volumes lingered around a mere 50ktpa) and is on course to increase the ratio higher still.

On one hand, Indian companies that acquired minor stakes in Rosneft’s Siberian assets have palpably intensified their purchases of Russian crude, which are a partial cause of the recent surge. On the other, those without any asset or joint venture-related link to Russia, have joined in, too. What is the root cause then, you ask? The price of Urals, vis-à-vis direct Middle East competitors has simply become too attractive not to buy.

Partly, this surge in Russian imports is a consequence of a recent convergence between Indian companies and Rosneft. A consortium comprising BHPL, IOC and Oil India purchased a 23.9 percent ($2 billion) stake in Vankorneft, Rosneft’s subsidiary which produces oil in one of East Siberia’s largest fields, as well as a 29.9 percent interest ($1.25 billion) in Taas-Yuryakh Neftegazodobycha, operator of the 240 MMBbl Srednebotuobinskoye field. Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), India’s largest enterprise, has bought 6 Suezmax-carried Urals cargoes this year for its Koyali refinery in Gujarat. A strange twist of fate, as the refinery was built with Soviet assistance subsequent to the signing of the Russo-Indian Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1961. Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BHPL) has stated that after the completion of its latest turnaround, which would allow it to process significantly more Urals, it intends on taking advantage of its close ties to Russian companies and start importing Urals. Related: The Battle For Natural Gas Dominance In Russia

Not only public sector companies have joined the Urals rally, independents, too, want to capitalize on the current favorable pricing rates. This June, when the $12.9 billion deal between Rosneft (49 percent), Trafigura (24 percent), UCP (24 percent) and the Ruia brothers is expected to be finalized, Essar Oil will come under the effective control of the Russian state company. Rosneft and Essar have already concluded a 10-year supply deal in 2015, stipulating the imports of Rosneft-supplied crude at 10 Mtpa for a 10-year period. Although Trafigura possesses downstream assets via its Puma Energy outlet (an investment firm, UPC has no downstream track record whatsoever), Rosneft will be the dominant voice in choosing crude for the 400 000 bpd Vadinar refinery. Apart from Russian crude molecules, Rosneft will bring in associated grades, too, as demonstrated by two deals in February 2017, under which it tentatively agreed on oil imports from Egypt and Libya to its new downstream asset.

Reliance, which runs the world’s largest refinery in Jamnagar (1.2 Mbpd production capacity), has so far imported four Urals cargoes this year. This, in itself, is a feat objectively reflecting the allure of Russian grades, as Reliance wields no assets in Russia. It has to be said that Reliance has seen its Saudi import channel significantly reduced as Riyadh was seeking to comply with OPEC production cut quotas, therefore it started its Urals imports out of necessity. Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which one year ago were vying for India’s top crude exporter spot, both cut their heavy crude supplies to India. Saudi Arabia will inevitably react, however, its recent declarations in favor of prolonging the OPEC production costs for another 9 months suggest that its reaction will not be rammed through international formats, but dealt with separately. Thus, notwithstanding the fate of the Vienna deal, Saudi Arabia seems intent on retaining its foothold over Indian imports – it already lowered its Asia-Pacific-bound medium and heavy crude formula prices for June 2017 and it might take further cuts, as circumstances may require. Related: Is Canada’s Oil Production Ready For A Resurgence?

Middle Eastern grades also became more expensive on the back of the OPEC production cuts. This can be pointedly demonstrated by the price differential between Urals Med and DME Omani crude, which are characteristics-wise almost identical (31° API vs 30.5° API, 1.5 percent Sulfur Content vs 1.4 percent). Throughout 2017, Urals Med wielded on average a 1 USD/bbl premium over DME Oman, even though only a year ago Omani crude traded at a 0.5-1.5 USD/bbl premium over Urals Med. More generally, the front-month Brent/Dubai exchange of futures for swaps has significantly narrowed, below 1.5 USD/bbl, contributing to the rise of Urals appeal. Moreover, not only the crude quotations are more favorable, but also freight costs tilted the balance in favor of Urals. In Q2 2017, freight costs from Novorossiysk to the Western coast of India were 1-2 USD/bbl lower than those from Oman.

Source: Thomson Reuters.

This sudden surge in Russian oil exports to India is mostly resulting from the pricing conditions created by the OPEC Agreement, upon the fate of which depends the sustainability of the Urals trend. The current favorable price environment will most likely evaporate as soon as the OPEC Agreement falls apart and this is bound to happen sooner or later as discrepancies between Signatories are mounting. Still, Russia’s Indian advance represents a fitting example on how peculiarly does the oil market work – just as Saudi Arabia is increasing its market share in Poland and other European countries traditionally perceived as being within Russia’s radius of interest, Russia is cutting its way to outlets that are traditionally dependent on Middle Eastern exporters. Still, the ongoing boom will most likely not be sustained for a long time, Moscow and Delhi will revert to their basics, their joint ventures in upstream.

By Viktor Katona for Oilprice.com

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