By Jenny W. Hsu

China's crude-oil imports surged in November, driven by strong demand from local refiners and Beijing's aggressive efforts to boost its strategic petroleum reserve.

In November, China imported 32.4 million metric tons of crude oil, or about 7.9 million barrels a day, up 18.3% from a year earlier, data from the General Administration of Customs showed Thursday.

China, the world's second-largest energy consumer, has been a major importer of crude at a time of oversupply and often rivals the U.S. as the top oil importer.

Analysts say as China allows more independent refiners to buy crude directly from foreign sources, the country's crude imports will likely continue to rise as domestic supply shrivels. In November, China produced 16.09 million tons of crude, a 9% decrease from a year earlier, according to government data.

However, a Reuters report last week said Beijing will suspend independent refiners' right to export fuel products from next year, stoking uneasiness in the industry. The government hasn't banned exports, but Commerzbank says if Beijing introduces the ban next year, China's crude-oil import growth will slow significantly.

In 2016, independent refiners, also known as teapot refiners, accounted for 90% of the 925,000 barrel-a-day increase in Chinese crude imports, the bank said.

Any downtrend in China's crude appetite would be a blow to the global oil market, which is already suffering from a stubborn supply overhang. Oil producers, especially those from the Middle East where China sources most of its oil, are banking on strong Chinese demand to help soak up excess supply and support prices.

In November, Saudi Arabia overtook Russia to become the top crude supplier to China. The kingdom's crude exports to China rose 29.2% from a year earlier to 4.7 million tons, or 1.15 million barrels a day.

Traders and analysts are also closely monitoring China's exports of fuel products. In recent months, a surge in gasoline and diesel exports from China has dented refining margins in Asia, analysts say.

In November, Chinese exports of gasoline jumped 65% from a year earlier to 938,215 tons. The bulk of the gasoline exports went to Singapore, a refining center that is also home to many trading houses.

Last month, China's diesel exports surged 62% from a year earlier to 1.47 million tons.

Write to Jenny W. Hsu at jenny.hsu@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 22, 2016 04:20 ET (09:20 GMT)

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