(Bloomberg) — Europe’s oil refiners, already making do without longstanding shipments of Russian crude, are now struggling with the loss of similar supplies from northern Iraq and a shock reduction in output by several of the world’s top producer nations.
Flows from Russia — formerly the European Union’s top supplier — have plummeted by more than a million barrels a day since the country’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, amid ever-tightening sanctions.
Those reductions are now starting to bite harder because Iraq has halted shipments that reach Europe via a Turkish port in the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, OPEC+ producers including Russia have announced supply curbs starting next month that will cut output by about 1.6 million barrels a day by July.
For Europe, the loss comes at an unfortunate time. The Russian and Iraqi grades are of similar density and sulfur quality, and refiners in Asia — notably China — are ramping up demand of this so-called medium-sour oil that forms their staple diet.
“A tough battle between Europe and Asia awaits, and Asia could outbid Europe for barrels, potentially triggering European run cuts to balance the crude market,” Energy Aspects Ltd. analysts Amrita Sen and Christopher Haines said in a recent note discussing global oil markets, including medium-sour crude.
In March, the EU imported 95,000 barrels a day of Russia-origin Urals, compared with almost 1.2 million barrels daily in February last year, data compiled by Bloomberg show. All cargoes were shipped to Bulgaria which has exemptions from EU sanctions on seaborne crude imports from Russia.
Europe has replaced at least a quarter of Russian supplies with crude from the Middle East since the spring of 2022, according to Energy Aspects. Flows from the Atlantic Basin, from Norway and Angola to the US, also increased in the first three months of this year, the International Energy Agency said in its monthly report earlier this month.
But now there’s a further wrinkle from the Middle East. Since last month, about 450,000 barrels a day of crude supplies from Iraq’s Kurdish region have been halted amid a payments dispute. In March, at least 169,000 daily barrels of this oil — shipped via Turkey’s port of Ceyhan — went to EU nations, tanker-tracking data show.
Read More: Tankers Tired of Waiting on Iraqi Kurdish Oil Depart After a Month
The curbs add to tightness in the market for medium-sour crudes, as Middle East producers are also using more of their own oil to boost processing at new domestic refineries.
In the Mediterranean, prices for grades like Iraq’s Basrah Medium, which are usually heavily discounted compared to others because of their sulfur levels, have rallied to a level that many traders see as too pricey.
Greek refiner Hellenic Petroleum SA also issued a rare tender — the first in two years — to purchase prompt supply of Basrah Medium. Some traders said the move signaled the tight availability of such barrels in the spot market amid the loss of Kurdish grades.
—With assistance from Anthony Di Paola.