A data release from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) prompted headlines this week declaring that China had displaced the US as the world’s top oil importer. The background: US imports are tumbling as, on the supply side, it produces more (shale) oil of its own while, on the demand side, the economy runs at half throttle. Meanwhile, Chinese growth is spurring domestic oil demand. The resulting switch in import positions is “a generational shift that will shake up the geopolitics of natural resources”, reports the Financial Times. But the small print reveals some big caveats.
To begin with, the imports in question are net (total imports minus total exports), and not just of crude oil: petroleum products (kerosene, naptha and the like) are also included. Confusingly, though, much of the reporting speaks simply of “oil imports”. Moreover, China’s anointment as the biggest oil importer is based on only one month’s data (December, the month when Chinese refined-product imports tend to peak). Over the whole of 2012 the US bought 7.1m barrels/day of crude and products—net—whereas China purchased 5.7m b/d. When it comes to absolute imports of crude oil alone, the US (8.5m b/d) leads China (5.4m b/d) by an even greater distance, although the gap is closing (see chart).
None of this is to argue that the day—or rather year—when China truly overtakes the US as a net importer of oil and related products will not come. Unless the US shale-oil boom fizzles, for instance, or China replicates it, the “generational shift” is only a matter of time. It just hasn’t happened quite yet.
The EIU's Energy Briefing provides forecasts to 2020 and daily news analysis for the world's most important energy markets, along with a database developed in association with the International Energy Agency.