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Trump Playing Hardball Gives Iran Oil Buyers Costly Headache


Apr 23, 2019, by Serene Cheong, Heesu Lee and Alfred Cang
(Bloomberg)

The biggest buyers of Iranian oil are being struck by deja vu, and it’s not conjuring up pleasant memories.

Six months ago they were scrambling to secure alternative supplies as the U.S. prepared to impose sanctions on Iranian oil exports, though last minute waivers eventually gave them a reprieve. Now, the Donald Trump administration says it won’t renew those same waivers, forcing the buyers to find a replacement for the Persian Gulf barrels.

Asia is more dependent on oil imports than any other region and has been repeatedly buffeted by America’s campaign to isolate Iran, once OPEC’s second-largest producer. While they’ll be able to find other supplies, they face the prospect of having to pay more, potentially accelerating inflation and putting pressure on their economies.

Importers had been expecting the waivers to be extended, perhaps with a cut in permitted volumes instead of an outright ban, according to refinery officials in Asia. They’d put purchases for May on hold as they awaited the U.S. decision.

One buyer, South Korea’s Hanwha Total Petrochemical Co., said it’s possible to find alternatives, but they’ll cost more and potentially affect the firm’s profits because they largely depend on the price of raw materials. The company has been importing and testing other supply from areas such as Africa and Australia, a spokesman said.

The White House said on Monday that its decision is intended to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero and squeeze the Persian Gulf state’s principal source of revenue. The U.S. wants to force Iran back to negotiations over its nuclear program. Any buyer importing crude after the waivers expire on May 2 faces the risk of being cut off from the American financial system.

Elusive Alternatives

While Trump said in a tweet that Saudi Arabia and other producers in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will make up for any shortfall, that prospect will not necessarily bring relief to buyers. South Korea, for example, is highly dependent on a type of ultra-light oil known as condensate from Iran that’s used by the Asian nation’s petrochemical producers.

These companies will be hit especially hard by the U.S. decision to eliminate waivers, according to four condensate traders interviewed by Bloomberg. That’s because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — among the biggest OPEC producers — export only limited supplies of the ultra-light oil, which is used in units known as splitters to produce petrochemicals and plastic components, they said.

Unipec, the trading arm of China’s state-owned refining giant Sinopec, hasn’t been approached by Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E. with more oil offers, said a person familiar with its procurement plan who asked not to be identified as the information is private. While the firm expected America to renew waivers at least with limited volumes, it had a contingency plan for an end to shipments, said the person, adding that it will seek to import more from the Middle East, West Africa and the U.S.

Caught by Surprise

An official at another major South Korean refiner also said it was caught off-guard by the U.S. decision, and still remained hopeful that the U.S. would ultimately extend waivers allowing at least some Iranian imports. Based on Bloomberg’s ship-tracking data, Asian buyers such as China, India, Japan and South Korea accounted for more than 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s total crude and condensate exports in March.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, will coordinate with other crude producers to ensure that adequate supplies are available and the market “does not go out of balance,” Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said after the Trump administration announced the end of the waivers.

One person familiar with the U.S. decision announced Monday said that some of the countries that had previously received waivers would be given a little more time to wind down purchases. The person described that not as a waiver but more as a brief grace period.

Crude Gains

Global benchmark Brent crude rose to a six-month high, moving toward $75 a barrel in London after the U.S. decision. Front-month futures were at $74.33 a barrel at 11:43 a.m. in London. West Texas Intermediate, the American marker, also jumped and is trading near $66 a barrel in New York.

Some refiners in India — which had been negotiating hard with the U.S. for the waivers to be renewed — sought to play down the impact on Monday. Indian Oil Corp., the nation’s top importer of Iranian crude, has enough supplies of alternative feedstock, said a company official who asked not to be identified because of internal policy.

The company intends to use built-in options in its oil contracts with Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Mexico to procure more crude from those sources, thus making up for any shortfall from the Persian Gulf state, the official said. Fellow domestic refiner Hindustan Petroleum Corp. is confident there won’t be supply constraints, according to Chairman M.K. Surana.

HPCL has reduced its purchases from the Islamic Republic and has limited exposure to U.S. sanctions, he said in a phone interview, though he added that a halt in supplies from Iran would likely push oil prices higher in coming months.



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