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China gas buyers seek cheap Russian fuel shunned by the world

© Photographer: VCG/Getty Images AAn LNG import terminal at Tianjin in China
An LNG import terminal at Tianjin in China

China’s top liquefied natural gas (LNG) importers are cautiously looking to purchase additional Russian shipments that have been shunned by the market in a bid to take advantage of cheap prices.

State-owned companies including Sinopec and PetroChina are in discussions with suppliers to buy spot cargoes from Russia at a deep discount, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Some importers are considering using Russian firms to participate in LNG purchase tenders on their behalf to hide their procurement plans from overseas governments, the people said.

Most LNG importers around the world won’t buy Russian cargoes out of fear of future sanctions or damage to reputation, as the war in Ukraine drags on and the European Union ratchets up pressure against Moscow. Chinese firms are emerging as some of the only companies willing to take on that risk.

PetroChina declined to comment. Sinopec didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment during a holiday.

This mimics a similar move by China’s oil refiners, which are also discreetly purchasing cheap Russian crude that the rest of the world doesn’t want. Several LNG shipments were already purchased by Chinese importers in the last few weeks, traders said.

Russian LNG is trading at more than a 10% discount to normal North Asia shipments in the spot market, according to traders. Spot prices for the super-chilled fuel surged to a record last month due to the war in Ukraine, which is tightening supplies just as global consumption rebounds.

To be sure, China isn’t in dire need of LNG as milder weather and Covid-19 lockdown fears have curbed spot demand. Still, Russian gas at a deep discount can help top up storage tanks before prices rise again this summer.

China’s LNG buyers are looking for the cargoes via bilateral discussions in order to keep a low profile in the spot market, according to the traders, who requested anonymity as the talks are private. And the companies remain cautious, choosing to withhold from buying large quantities.

Instead of participating directly in a Russian LNG sales tender, Chinese companies are looking to use so-called “sleeves,” or firms to buy on their behalf to mask their procurement, traders said. This will help mask their spot activity, and instead look like the Chinese company may be accepting a delivery of Russian gas from a long-term contract, which firms around the world have continued doing despite the war in Ukraine.

They are also avoiding participation from satellite offices from London to Singapore, to skirt any potential trouble with those governments. Most LNG trading desks for Chinese firms are located overseas.

There are still hurdles. Smaller Chinese LNG buyers are struggling to get credit guarantees from banks to purchase additional spot cargoes from Russia, with most institutions in Singapore unwilling to provide support. Only the top Chinese importers can use so-called open-credit schemes, which are pre-approved lines of credit from banks.

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