China to become world's top net oil importer

Rising world power will overtake the US before the end of the year, according to federal data

Vehicles wait in lines to refuel at a gas station on Aug. 16, 2005 in Guangzhou, China
Jason Lu/China Photos/Getty Images

China's rising energy demand, coupled with increased oil production in the United States, has the Asian power poised to become the world's largest net oil importer by October of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Starting next year, China's net oil imports will exceed the U.S. on an annual basis, and the gap between the two countries will continue to widen, according to the EIA's August 2013 Short-Term Energy Outlook.

The shift has been driven by steady growth in Chinese demand, increased oil production in the United States and stagnant or weakening demand in the U.S. market, the EIA said in its report.

China is already the biggest energy user in the world, according to the International Energy Agency, and the second-largest oil consumer after the U.S.

A graph on the EIA's website shows China's net imports steadily rising, with those of the U.S. falling at an increasing rate.

Erica Downs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, said U.S. oil production is probably the biggest factor in China becoming the top importer.
"I think this is more a story about the U.S. than about China," Downs told Al Jazeera.
U.S. annual oil output is expected to rise 28 percent between 2011 and 2014 to nearly 13 million barrels per day, while Chinese production is forecast to grow by six percent over the same period, and will stand at just a third of U.S. production in 2014, the EIA said.

China's liquid fuel use will increase 13 percent over that period to more than 11 million barrels per day, while U.S. demand hovers close to 18.7 million barrels per day.

That is below the United States' peak consumption level of 20.8 million barrels per day in 2005, the EIA added.

Growing petroleum production in the U.S. has largely been driven by the increasing use of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.

Downs explained that most of China’s historical and current oil demand is for its industries, adding that a growing automobile fleet in the country will likely bring even bigger demand in the future.

China's number one oil supplier is Saudi Arabia, which Downs said supplies about 20 percent of China's crude oil imports. The country also imports significant amounts of oil from Angola, Russia and Iran.

Given the greater demand, could China look to other countries to meet its oil needs?

Downs said that while Chinese oil companies have invested "considerable amounts of money" in places like Angola and Sudan, projections by the International Energy Agency show China’s dependency on Persian Gulf oil staying at about 50 percent through 2035 with the volume of the imports continuing to increase.  

"I suspect the Chinese will continue to do what they’ve been doing for the past 15-20 years, which is to try to diversify their oil exports away from the Persian Gulf because if you’re an importer, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket," Down said. "I suspect that they will continue to remain heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil."

China's ascendance to the top of the world's net oil import rankings is likely to have a profound impact.

"China and the U.S. will no longer be pure competitors in the energy sector -- China is likely to import energy in bulk from the U.S.," commentator Li Dongchao wrote on national website China Business News Monday.

"The (rising) independence of U.S. energy will support the rejuvenation of U.S. manufacturing, which will renew competition with Chinese manufacturing," Li said.

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report with Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

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