China's oil demand meets North Sea supply

A Chinese worker installs Sinopec logo Image copyright AFP
Image caption Sinopec is scouring the world to secure energy supplies for China

The market for office space in Aberdeen reflects the liveliness of the city's economy more widely.

But one small office opening this week may prove to be more significant than most. The company making the announcement is a newly formed one, called Addax Petroleum UK Limited.

Its significance is its owner, Sinopec, the fourth largest company in the world, and the state-owned corporation that's scouring the world to secure energy supplies for China.

China already has around 8% of the North Sea's producing capacity. Sinopec recently formed a joint venture with Talisman, from Canada, and another state-owned company, CNOOC, has paid nearly £10bn to buy the Canadian firm Nexen, with its major stake in the huge Buzzard field, off Aberdeen.

The Chinese strategists are now putting Addax into Europe's energy capital to look for more opportunities, which could include joint ventures, acquisitions and equity stakes.

'Exciting milestone'

The presence of the big state-owned energy companies is seen as a significant vote of confidence in the UK offshore industry.

It's an "exciting milestone", according to Yi Zhang, chief executive of Addax Petroleum.

He adds: "We are in the process of establishing a North Sea competency centre in Aberdeen to engage in many business areas.

"Addax Petroleum has a history of achieving consistent growth through substantial investments in its operations and we look forward to working in the UK North Sea to continue on our sustainable and upwards path."

The plan is for Addax to re-invest and acquire, to build up production from an average 169,000 barrels per day last year, to 500,000 by 2015.

For comparison, output from the UK Continental Shelf is expected to fall this year to between 1.2 million and 1.4 million barrels per day.

Eight times more cars

The Chinese search for resources is building confidence elsewhere, of course, from African food production to Australia's outback ore miners.

The scale of the demand for energy in China was set out this week by Wood Mackenzie, the Edinburgh-based energy analyst. It's a scale that may be having a big impact on geo-politics.

Wood Mac calculates that China will have to spend $500bn on crude oil by 2020, while the US import bill will fall to $160bn, due to increased domestic production from US shale deposits.

Looked at another way - between 2005 and 2020, China's daily imports will rise from 2.5 million barrels to 9.2 million, while US imports will fal from a peak of 10 million to 6.8 million - a Chinese increase of 360%, and an American decline of 32%.

And why is this? Apart from its industrial needs, China is expected to be second only to America for its fleet of privately-owned cars, rising from 20 million in 2005 to 160 million by 2020.

Middle East security

Wood Mackenzie's Beijing-based president of global markets, William Durbin, says 70% of China's oil demand will come from imports by the end of the decade, and the type of oil its refineries need is the variety at which the Middle East excels.

"It is important to note these opposing trends as it means the US is becoming more North America-centric for its supply needs and China more dependent on Middle East and OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) crude," says Durbin.

"We will therefore see OPEC suppliers, who traditionally focused on the US for crude sales, compelled to shift their focus to China."

That's not only important for an understanding of the oil markets, or for the environmental impact.

It's also a factor in the US view of the Middle East as it contemplates what, if anything, it can do about Syria, Egypt, Iran and security for their neighbours.

While its shale oil and gas are booming, America needs the Middle East far less than it did. And China needs it far more.

This article was originally published on Saturday 24 August.

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