Two geopolitical developments in recent weeks—U.S. sanctions on Iran and the escalating U.S.-Chinese trade war—are set to reshuffle the U.S. oil flows to the world’s fastest-growing oil market, Asia.
On the one hand, the United States is pressing Iran’s oil customers to cut their Iranian crude imports by as much as possible. China is Tehran’s biggest oil buyer, and India is its second. While India is reportedly preparing for a drastic reduction of Iranian oil imports, China will continue to buy Iranian oil.
On the other hand, China is threatening to impose a 25-percent tariff on U.S. crude oil and oil products after the U.S.-Chinese trade war took a turn for the worse in recent weeks. Such a tariff would make American crude oil uncompetitive in China, and U.S. oil sellers will have to find alternative buyers for their crude to replace the volumes they are currently selling to their second-largest oil customer after Canada.
India is an obvious possibility—its imports and demand are surging, and it may be willing to replace at least part of its Iranian oil imports out of fear that its companies and the sovereign could lose access to the U.S. financial system should it continue to buy Iran’s oil.
But the problem with India possibly replacing Iranian oil with U.S. crude is that American light oil isn’t a substitute for heavy high-sulfur Iranian crude.
India began regular U.S. imports last year, but the volumes are currently small, especially compared to the U.S. crude exports to China, EIA data shows. But in May, India’s imports of U.S. crude oil jumped by nine times the April volumes—signifying that at least a partial switch is already underway.
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