RUSSIAN OIL UP
The sales team at Sakhalin Energy on Russia's far east still finds Singapore hot, but they're flying in more often these days.
"We come out three times a year now to visit existing clients and make new connections," said Alexander Tsarev, its general manager of crude oil marketing on a recent visit. "Personal contact is important, especially in a competitive market like this one. You have to be flexible and close to your partners."
The oil and gas producer, based on Russia's Sakhalin island, is one of a handful of far east Russian oil companies that are rapidly expanding their market share in Asia, the world's fastest growing oil market.
Exploiting its proximity to northern Asia and the collapse of the rouble against the U.S. dollar, Russia has become the fastest growing oil supplier to Asia at a time when Middle East exporters are distracted by internal strife and competition from U.S. shale producers.
"Russian crude is really attractive to us due to its fast delivery time and also cheap prices," said a spokeswoman from SK Innovation, which owns South Korea's largest refiner.
China, Japan and South Korea together import more than 12 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude, twice the amount bought by the United States, the world's top consumer.
Russia's exports to China have more than doubled since 2013, steadily catching up with top supplier Saudi Arabia, according to data from Thomson Reuters Oil Research & Forecasts. Both countries supplied over 4 million tonnes of crude a month, or about 1 million barrels per day (bpd), by the end of last year.
Russia has made the most headway in China, where the 4,900 km Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean (Espo) oil pipeline, helped it beat out the Saudis to be the biggest exporter for several months last year. China also overtook Germany as Russia's biggest oil customer.
Russian exports have been boosted by the emergence of China's independent refiners, known as "teapots", which have quotas to import the equivalent of about 20 percent of China's crude imports, which have hit a record of 8 million bpd.
Russia's oil has taken market share "because of the good mix of quality and price of Russian oil," Li Xiangping, chairman of China's largest private refiner Dongming Petrochemical Group, told Reuters on the sidelines of a recent event in Shandong.
Almost all of the teapots are gathered in the coastal Shangdong province and are connected by pipelines to mid-size terminals that cannot accept the massive supertankers used by Middle Eastern exporters.
Russia, by contrast, ships its oil in smaller vessels.
NOT JUST CHINA
Russia is also targetting the trading hub of Singapore and is making gains in Japan and South Korea, although its share of shipments there still lags well behind Saudi Arabia.
Between 2013 and 2015, Russia's far eastern exports to South Korea doubled to more than 200,000 bpd, while shipments to Japan rose about 25 percent to 290,000 bpd, despite the country's falling oil demand.
While the smaller ships needed to serve east-Russia's smaller ports mean that its seaborne crude does not necessarily have a freight cost advantage over supplies from the Middle East's cost-efficient super-tankers, the shorter distance poses a huge time advantage to refiners, buyers say.
A super-tanker at average speeds of 15 knots will take over 20 days to reach South Korea from Saudi Arabia, while a journey from Russia's Pacific far east takes just two or three days.
"The short distance and faster delivery of Russian crude makes it possible to refine crude early, therefore shortening the period between time of purchase and actual delivery, when refiners are exposed to variable factors," said a trading source at a Japanese refinery.
Russia's aggressive move into Asia has led Middle East producers like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq to re-focus their sales effort on Europe.
Russia itself is now eying the next big prize in oil markets, India, where demand has just pipped supply and growth now outpaces China.
Russian oil giant Rosneft [ROSN.MM] is on a high profile visit to India this week to sign energy deals with several leading Indian refiners and firmly establish itself as a major supplier of the world's fastest growing fuel market.
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