US pressure spurs top oil buyers to shun Iran crude

A general view of an oil facility in the Khark Island. The US wants allies to end all imports of Iranian oil by a November 4 deadline and isn’t offering extensions or waivers to that timeline, as it targets the Gulf state’s economic lifeline with sanctions over its nuclear programme.

At least some buyers of Iranian supplies in the world’s biggest oil market are considering acquiescing to US President Donald Trump’s demands. As the American administration piles pressure on its allies to entirely halt purchases of Iranian supplies, Japan’s Fuji Oil Co and Taiwan’s Formosa Petrochemical Corp are considering ending imports from the Opec member – though they are yet to make a final decision. South Korea has already put some imports on hold while Emirates National Oil Co in the UAE is trying alternatives to cargoes from the Islamic Republic.

The US wants allies to end all imports of Iranian oil by a November 4 deadline and isn’t offering extensions or waivers to that timeline, as it targets the Gulf state’s economic lifeline with sanctions over its nuclear programme. It’s boosted speculation that a global shortage will be exacerbated, lifting prices. Fuji Oil will likely replace its cargoes with those from Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi while Formosa may opt for Saudi and Iraqi crude.

“We are preparing for different scenarios, the worst-case being a total ban on Iranian imports,” Formosa spokesman Lin Keh-Yen said by phone. “Iranian crude imports make up a small portion of FPCC’s total purchases; any loss in Iranian oil can be replaced with other grades from the spot market.” Any lost barrels could help Saudi Arabia – Tehran’s main regional rival – recover market share in Asia that shrank after Opec began output curbs last year to reduce a global glut. Now, the Middle East nation is said to be planning to pump record volumes to fulfil its pledge to fill any supply gaps. Yet, that may strain its spare capacity at a time when the oil market is already coping with the collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry and turmoil in Libya.

Fuji Oil will decide on the Iranian purchases after holding discussions with the government and other Japanese refiners, spokesman Takaaki Sobue said yesterday. Formosa Petrochemical will make a final decision after meeting with refinery executives and Taiwanese government officials in the coming weeks, said people with knowledge of matter, asking not to be identified as the information is private. JXTG Holdings Inc, Japan’s biggest refiner, plans to follow its government’s guidance on the sanctions, and if the refiner has to end Iranian purchases, it’ll ensure stable supply from other sources including in the Middle East, West Africa and potentially the US, a company spokesman said.

Government negotiations with the US are ongoing, Takashi Yamada, director of petroleum policy at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said last week. Refiners in South Korea, one of Iran’s leading customers, are shunning a type of oil known as condensate from the Middle East nation to feed the nation’s petrochemical plants. SK Innovation Co, Hanwha Total Petrochemical Co and Hyundai Oilbank Co have all rushed to procure supply of an alternative – naphtha – instead.

An official at South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said last week that the US expressed its willingness to take a hard-line approach in imposing sanctions on Iran, and declined to comment on discussions about oil trade. South Korea’s government is in ongoing talks with the US to seek an exemption to minimise any impact from the suspension of Iranian crude imports, the Asian nation’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in an emailed statement yesterday. Meanwhile, ENOC in the UAE bought Equatorial Guinea’s Alba and the US’s Eagle Ford condensate as it sought to run its facility in Jebel Ali.

At the heart of the problem for Iran’s biggest customers is a US threat to cut off access to the American banking system for foreign financial institutions that settle trades with the Middle East nation’s central bank. Trump last month announced he was quitting a 2015 nuclear accord between world powers and Iran that had called for it to curb its nuclear program in return for the easing of sanctions. Much will depend on what is done by China and India, Iran’s two biggest oil customers. It’s unclear if either has made a decision yet. While Beijing has held strategic talks with the Middle East nation, it hasn’t disclosed whether it might scale back imports in light of renewed US sanctions. When the restrictions were in place earlier this decade, the Asian nations had persisted with purchases from Iran in spite of American criticism.

Meanwhile, India plans to seek some exemptions to continue Iranian oil imports, and is looking at alternate payment mechanisms, two government officials said earlier this month, asking not to be identified citing internal policy. There haven’t been any discussions with the government so far, said R Ramachandran, director of refineries at India’s Bharat Petroleum Corp, adding that its imports from Iran are of a “very small quantity.” “It’s a call the government will have to take and we will be guided by that decision,” said Arun Kumar Sharma, finance director of Indian Oil Corp, the country’s biggest refiner. “Finding an alternate supply source, if at all, won’t be a problem. In the global market of oil, sources are plenty.”

Sources and photo-credits: Gulf Times, Bloomberg