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Oil Imports Raise Security Concern

Economic researchers have raised fresh concerns over China's energy security with crude-oil imports expected to hit a record 80 million metric tons this year.

Alarmed by the growing dependence on oil imports, they are urging for multi-pronged measures to develop new sources of energy to prevent potential shortages hurting the country's robust economic growth.

Their appeal came against the backdrop of a strong economic performance which propelled China's crude-oil imports to jump by 30 percent year on year to 50.64 millions tons in the first seven months of this year.

Professor Tong Jiadong at Tianjin-based Nankai University attributed the surging oil imports mainly to China's rapid gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which recorded 8.2 percent in the first half despite a slowdown caused by the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

The double-digit growth of oil-related industries such as automobile and transportation sectors has resulted in rocketing demand for crude oil consumption and imports, Tong said.

As one of the world's fastest-growing energy markets, China consumes about 230 million tons of crude oil each year, accounting for 22 percent of its total annual energy consumption.

Economic researchers and energy experts were caught off guard by the surprisingly strong pace in oil imports despite their prediction of China's increasing need for crude oil.

With this year's oil imports set to hit 80 million tons, it seems the growth will definitely out-pace an earlier conservative forecast that imports would not reach the figure until 2010.

Zhu He, a senior engineer with China Petroleum and Chemical Corp (Sinopec), said the country's crude-oil imports were originally estimated to hit 150 to 200 million tons only in 2015.

China has been a net oil importer since 1993 with production at its key oil fields levelling off. Last year, imports rose by 15.2 percent to reach 69.41 million tons and the dependence rate on crude oil imports is estimated to reach 30 percent this year.

Zhu suggested the country's growing dependence on imported energy has highlighted the urgency for formulating an oil security strategy to ensure sustainable and stable economic development in the future.

Meanwhile, fluctuating international oil prices caused by the US-led war in Iraq also entailed a range of moves to fend off market risks.

"The government needs to take urgent steps as soon as possible to cope with the grave situation," he said.

Zhu said it is extremely important for China to improve domestic oil production, secure more oil supply in the market and increase inventories of crude oil and oil products. A strategic national oil reserve, as in the United States and Japan, should be phased in as a long-term plan, he added.

The engineer also proposed that China further increase investment in overseas oil projects to garner more oil assets abroad.

Leading Chinese oil firms including China's two oil giants China National Petroleum Corp (PetroChina) and Sinopec have already joined the drive for overseas expansion in Central Asia and Africa.

Chen Huai, deputy director of the Research Institute of Market Economy at the Development Research Center of the State Council, went further to call for a major expansion of the nuclear-power industry.

Given the expected oil and natural gas shortages in China, the government should lose no time to boost the nuclear-power sector, according to Chen.

Energy production of China's nuclear-power sector currently makes up a paltry 1.3 percent of the total; the proportion should be raised to at least 4 percent in the near term, Chen said.

(China Daily September 4, 2003)

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