Oil and gas consumption is expected to see slower growth in China this year, with the falling global crude prices providing an opportunity for more energy sector reforms, experts said on Wednesday.
The country's oil demand will grow 3 percent year-on-year to 534 million metric tons in 2015, according to the think tank of China National Petroleum Corp, the nation's top oil and gas producer. In 2014, oil consumption grew by 3.3 percent to 516 million tons, said a report published by the CNPC Economic and Technology Research Institute.
"Economic incentives for oil consumption will continue to decline. As a result, China's oil demand growth will be slower, at around 2 to 3 percent in the future," said Sun Xiansheng, head of the institute.
The think tank estimated the average price of global crude benchmark Brent to be around $60 to $70 a barrel and the West Texas Intermediate crude price at about $55 to $65 a barrel this year.
Affected by a supply glut and weakening demand, global crude prices had dropped from around $115 a barrel in mid-June to $53 a barrel by the end of 2014. Prices continued to decline to below $50 a barrel this month.
"From a trading perspective, China will have a much bigger say in the international crude market since the country, as a strategic buyer, will keep leading the demand growth in the world," Sun said.
He said crude output may gradually decline as international oil companies cut investment this year to cope with price drops.
"Low-cost crude producers such as in the Middle East region will gain a much bigger market share," he said. "China will be a buyer that all the producers want to chase."
Wang Zhen, deputy director of CNPC policy research office, said Chinese oil companies should use the falling crude prices to adjust their business structure so that China can accelerate the reform of the energy industry.
Yang Lei, deputy director of the oil and natural gas division at the National Energy Administration, said falling crude prices have triggered losses for many overseas oil blocks owned by Chinese firms.
Slowdown hits natural gas use
The growth of natural gas consumption fell to a 10-year low of 8.9 percent last year from 17.4 percent in 2013, a result of the nation's economic slowdown, an industry think tank said on Wednesday.
Consumption was far below expectations at 183 billion cubic meters, said Sun Xiansheng, head of the CNPC Economic and Technology Research Institute. It estimated that natural gas demand will be about 200 billion cu m this year with imports of 65 billion cu m.
In 2014, China imported 59 billion cu m of natural gas, up 11.5 percent year-on-year, which means that about 32.2 percent of gas demand was satisfied by imports.
Domestic output was 125.6 billion cu m last year, and output of coal gas was only 1 billion cu m, which was far below the target, Sun said.
"There are many reasons for slower natural gas consumption," said Shan Weiguo, an analyst at the institute. The main one was the economic slowdown, which cut industrial use.
Also, the authorities hiked natural gas prices in 2014, which increased the costs of the transport and power sectors and prompted them to conserve supplies, Shan said.
Refiners asked to store more crude
China's top economic planner has, for the first time, set a minimum level of national crude reserves for domestic oil companies, in a move to increase the country's energy security in light of its increasing reliance on imports.
Crude oil stockpiles should be increased to a level able to sustain no less than 15 days of processing volume, according to a statement on new guidelines posted on the National Development and Reform Commission's website on Wednesday.
China's oil demand has continued to increase year-on-year, as has its dependence on imports, according to the statement, but a potential gap in supplies still exists.
"The falling oil prices mean excellent timing for the launch of the new guidelines," said Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.
Lin said industrial observers have long been proposing such guidelines and added the well-timed announcement will benefit the oil companies, given the dramatic slump in prices.
The guidelines also said companies can lower their stocks to no less than 10 days of reserves if the international oil price exceeds $130 per barrel. Existing oil processing companies and newly launched enterprises should reach the minimum standard for stocks within one year, while some established producers are being allowed to reach the requirement within three years.
Companies failing to implement the minimum stock requirements or build storage capacity or report false figures will be punished, said the regulator.