(Bloomberg) -- Uncertainty over U.S. waivers for buyers of Iranian oil is starting to grip the market again, under very different circumstances than when American sanctions were set to go into effect last year.
Before existing exemptions were granted in early November, Saudi Arabia was pumping at record levels, benchmark Brent futures rose to a four-year high, traders were predicting $100 oil, and Donald Trump was seeking lower fuel prices ahead of U.S. mid-term elections. The waivers blindsided the market, which had assumed America would bring Iranian exports to zero, and sparked a 40 percent collapse in crude.
Now, as the six-month waivers allowing buyers to ship limited quantities approach their expiry, the Saudis are pursuing aggressive output cuts, U.S. sanctions on Venezuela have further squeezed supplies and OPEC producers burned by last quarter’s oil slump are defying Trump’s call for lower prices. Iran’s customers, meanwhile, are making plans -- with some betting the exemptions will be extended and others expecting an end.
The Trump administration, for its part, says the aim is still to completely halt Iran’s oil shipments as it seeks to increase economic pressure on Tehran. In February, Japanese broadcaster NHK cited the State Department’s Brian Hook as saying the U.S. doesn’t plan to extend the waivers. More recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America wants to bring the Islamic Republic’s exports to zero “as quickly as market conditions will permit.”
Iran’s customers, meanwhile, are making plans -- with some assuming the waivers will be renewed while others foreseeing some cuts to permitted purchases. Here’s a round-up of plans by major buyers, based on information from traders who participate in the market, refinery officials, data compiled by Bloomberg and analysts.
Refineries built to turn ultra-light oil known as condensate into petrochemicals have stepped up purchases of alternative supply due to mounting uncertainty around future cargoes from Iran. Hanwha Total Petrochemical Co. and SK Innovation Co. have bought several spot cargoes of Qatari shipments for loading in April after a months-long hiatus, just as the U.S.-issued waiver is set to expire.
The companies had slashed their spot purchases in February and March as they rushed to import the maximum permitted volume of Iran’s South Pars condensate. While they are now turning to Qatari cargoes, they are being aided by a glut in the market for such supply.
Additionally, the relatively low cost of other feedstock such as heavy full-range naphtha offers another viable replacement for some. Overall demand is also muted due to planned maintenance shutdown at Hyundai Chemical Co.
The nation’s largest refiners, state-run Sinopec and PetroChina Co., are preparing for a scenario where U.S.-issued waivers are renewed with some cuts to permitted purchase volumes, according to company officials with knowledge of procurement plans, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.
Chinese buyers may choose to secure at least some alternatives in the spot market ahead of time, according to a Bloomberg survey of traders who participate in the market. That’s because allocations for Iranian cargoes tend to take place three to four weeks before shipments are due to load, leaving refiners with the risk of insufficient supplies if there are hurdles related to the waivers.
With Atlantic Basin benchmarks Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate prices weakening relative to the Middle East’s Dubai marker, China is seen sustaining high levels of African oil imports while also considering shipments of Russian Urals and American crude as trade tensions between the U.S. and China ease.
After receiving its first cargo under the waivers only in February, the close U.S. ally is now already scaling back purchases even though the waivers expire only in early May. A cargo that loaded this month from Iran for Cosmo Oil Co. will be the company’s last. Fuji Oil Co. halted lifting shipments at the end of February.
Other refiners that have purchased volumes include JXTG Holdings Inc. and Showa Shell (LON:RDSa) Sekiyu KK. Japan’s purchases from Iran typically drop during March due to uncertainty around the prospect of an annual renewal of government-issued freight insurance for the Islamic Republic’s cargoes for the following fiscal year starting in April.
The nation’s refiners are highly reliant on Middle East producers for crude supply, and the Saudi-led output curbs by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies could increase the risk of disruptions if the U.S. waiver on Iran isn’t renewed. Japanese firms have already purchased more spot cargoes of Abu Dhabi’s Murban and Das for April loading, according to traders who participate in the market.
Buyers of Iranian crude such as Indian Oil Corp. and Bharat Petroleum Corp. plan to continue importing oil from the Persian Gulf producer in April, even as the availability of May supplies remains uncertain as refiners await the Trump administration’s decision on waivers.
Also read: Iran Gets a Little Sweet Relief From Oil-Money Headache in India
While an IOC official said the company is mulling alternative plans should supplies be halted, the top Indian importer of Iranian crude remains confident that it can lean on flexible terms in its supply contracts with Saudi Arabia and Iraq to make up for any loss in shipments.
BPCL, meanwhile, has booked 1 million barrels of Iranian oil for April and had yet to decide on its purchases for May, Director of Refineries R. Ramachandran said.
“Beyond May 4, we don’t know what will happen. We are waiting,” he said, adding that the company has the option of purchasing other grades from the Middle East. “We feel the extension of waivers may not happen easily, so we have alternative plans,” he added.
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