China has achieved another world-beating status its leaders do not want: biggest oil importer.
China passed the US last month as the world’s biggest net oil importer, driven by faster economic growth and strong car sales, according to US government data released this week.
Chinese oil consumption outstripped production by 6.3 million barrels per day, which indicates the country had to import that much to fill the gap, the US’ Energy Information Administration (EIA) said this week.
“China’s steady growth in oil demand has led it to become the world’s largest net oil importer, exceeding the United States in September 2013,” the agency said in a report. “EIA forecasts this trend to continue through 2014.”
China’s economic boom has raised incomes and increased its global influence. However, it also has spurred demand for imported oil and gas, which its leaders see as a strategic weakness.
Rising car ownership has left China’s cities choking on smog and added to pressure on Beijing from its own public to curb pollution, and from other nations to rein in surging greenhouse gas emissions.
The US, with a population about one-third the size of China’s, still consumes far more oil per person than China does.
Last month, the US used 18.6 million barrels per day of oil and other liquid fossil fuels, while China used 10.9 million, according to the EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook report. US production was 12.5 million barrels per day, while that of China was 4.6 million.
Beijing is encouraging development of wind and solar power and use of cars powered by batteries or natural gas. However, gasoline is expected to remain the country’s main vehicle fuel in coming decades.
The government has launched initiatives to improve China’s energy intensity, or the energy consumed for each unit of economic output. It has reported progress, but still is far behind developed economies.
Until the late 1990s, China supplied its oil needs from domestic sources, including the vast Daqing field in the northeast. However, the economic boom outstripped its production capacity, while output from existing sources is forecast to decline.
That has forced China to rely more heavily on imports, especially from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Chinese state-owned oil companies have invested billions of dollars to develop oil and gas sources in Iraq, Central Asia and Africa.
At the same time, US import demand has weakened as hydraulic fracturing and other technologies open up new domestic sources of supply.
Overall, the US still should be the biggest oil consumer next year at about 18.7 million barrels per day, down from its peak of 20.8 million in 2005, according to the EIA. It said China’s consumption next year should be about 11 million barrels per day.