Russia oil flows to Europe have quietly started creeping up

The continent's oil refineries took 1.84 million barrels a day of crude from Russia last week. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Europe's resolve to stop buying Russian crude may be starting to ebb.

The continent's oil refineries took 1.84 million barrels a day of crude from Russia last week, according to tanker tracking data compiled by Bloomberg.

That was the third consecutive weekly increase and took flows from Russia to Europe, including Turkey, to their highest in almost two months.

Partly it was about Litasco, the trading unit of Russia's largest oil producer, taking barrels to the company's refineries, and partly it was about Turkey purchasing more. Beyond that, though, steady ongoing declines appear to have slowed.

The developments suggest those companies and countries who were unwilling to buy Russian have already stepped back, leaving the market to others who are happier to do so. Russian oil plunged to huge discounts after the country's invasion of Ukraine as some companies stopped buying.

China and India are still the largest buyers of Russian crude, the weekly tracking data show.

With all cargoes loaded at ports on the country's Pacific coast heading to China, Asia is now taking half of all the crude shipped from the country.

That is up from about one-third at the beginning of the year.

Crude shipments to Asia are dominated by flows to just two countries, China and India. Seaborne shipments to China are averaging about one million barrels a day, up from a low for the year so far of 600,000 barrels a day in the four weeks to Feb 18.

India has emerged as the saviour of Russia's seaborne crude exports, with volumes averaging more than 600,000 barrels a day in the four weeks to June 17, up from just 25,000 barrels a day at the start of the year.

Beyond India, Russia has yet to find any significant new buyers of its crude in Asia.

Russia has lost almost two-thirds of its market for seaborne crude in northern Europe, but the volume it is shipping there has stabilised following its initial drop after Russian troops attacked Ukraine.

Shipments to the region averaged about 450,000 barrels a day in the four weeks to July 17, down from nearly 1.25 million barrels a day in the first four weeks of the year, but little changed over the past month.

Most countries have almost completely halted imports of Russian crude by sea, well ahead of European Union sanctions on the trade that are due to come into effect in December.

The picture in the Mediterranean is very different. Shipments of Russian crude to the region have soared.

A large part of the reason is the shipping of Russian crude to Russian-owned refineries in the region, particularly Lukoil's ISAB plant on the Italian island of Sicily. Turkey has also stepped in to take a lot more Russian crude that has been diverted to the region from northern Europe.

It remains to be seen what ISAB will do when the EU ban on seaborne Russian crude comes into force in December. Until then, with no legal impediment to its purchases and few, if any alternatives to its diet of Russian crude, shipments are unlikely to fall.

The Mediterranean picture is repeated in the Black Sea, again driven by increased shipments to a Lukoil-owned refinery in Bulgaria.

While flows to Romania are little changed since the start of the year, those to Bulgaria are two and a half times as big as they were in January and early February.

While the trade in Russia's seaborne crude has been diverted away from northern Europe to Asia and the Mediterranean, so far the self-imposed curbs are having little impact on the overall level of shipments.

Total seaborne crude flows rose in the seven days to June 17, reversing about half of the previous week's drop.

A total of 35 tankers loaded 26.3 million barrels from the country's export terminals, vessel-tracking data and port agent reports show.

That put average flows at 3.75 million barrels a day, up by 6 per cent from 3.55 million in the week ended June 10.

Separately, several tankers full of Russian crude are in the vicinity of Singapore.

The Tao Lin Wan, which took on a cargo at Ust-Luga in May, is anchored off the city-state, while the NS Consul is reporting its status as "Moored" off Johor to the east of Singapore, a common location for transferring cargoes from one vessel to another.

If the NS Consul is carrying out a ship-to-ship transfer, the vessel receiving the cargo is hidden, not transmitting a signal to identify it and its location. This would be the first such "dark" transfer of Russian crude since the invasion of Ukraine.

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