China’s Independent Refiners: A New Force Shaping Global Oil Markets
China’s independent refiners account for roughly one third of the country’s downstream, yet for years, these private companies, nicknamed ‘teapots’ for their simple refining configuration, were virtually unknown to global crude markets. The independent refiners processed fuel oil as feedstock and, running at low utilisation rates, their retail market share in China was limited mainly to Shandong province, where most of them are located.
The independent refiners sprang to global attention after they first received quotas to process imported crude oil in July 2015. Since that time, Chinese crude buying has surged—even though end product demand growth is slowing—with the teapots accounting for the vast majority of China’s incremental purchases. They have tapped into a wide variety of suppliers, impacted regional pricing dynamics and crude flows to China.
With access to new sources of feedstock, the independents increased throughput substantially and have challenged the state-owned majors’ monopoly, especially in the domestic products market, thanks to support from the local government and, at times, creative tax practices. At the same time, the state-owned majors have lobbied the government to clamp down and tighten scrutiny of the independents. In 2017, the wave of liberalization that enabled the ‘teapots’ rise seems to be drying up and the political and economic challenges they face are mounting.