By DAVID BIRD
NEW YORK -- US imports of crude oil from Saudi Arabia climbed 45.7% from a year earlier in April to the highest level since July 2008, according to US government data released Thursday.
The jump in imports came as the world's biggest oil exporter pumped at the highest levels in decades to offset a potential shortage in crude oil supply as stricter sanctions against Iran, the world's fifth-biggest oil producer, were taking hold.
The rise in US imports from Saudi Arabia came as total crude oil imports from all sources declined in the month amid higher domestic production.
April imports of crude oil to the US, the biggest oil consumer on the planet, eased by 1.4% from a year earlier, to 8.591 million bpd, and were 2% below the March level, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.
Canada, the top crude supplier to the US each month since March 2006, maintained the prime spot, even as imports slipped 1.7% from a month earlier, to 2.421 million bbl, the lowest level since November.
April crude oil imports from Canada were 1.6% above the year-earlier level.
Imports from Saudi Arabia averaged 1.587 million bpd in April, nearly 500,000 bpd higher than in April 2011, and 15.7% above the March level.
Crude oil imports from the de facto leader of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries were the most since July 2008, when US crude prices set a record high above $145/bbl and the Saudis sharply boosted output to curb runaway prices amid fear of a steep drop in demand.
Tanker voyages from Saudi Arabia to the US take about 45 days, meaning crude oil arriving at US ports in April would have loaded in February.
The Saudis have reported February oil output of around 9.9 million bpd, about 900,000 bpd higher than in February 2011.
Saudi Arabia accounted for 18.5% of total US crude oil imports in April, its highest share of US crude imports since June 2003 and up from 16.5% in March, EIA data show.
US crude oil imports, in general, have been weaker than in recent years as domestic production has risen because of technological advances in tapping shale oil fields.
EIA data show US crude oil output in April averaged 6.127 million bpd, up 10.2% from a year earlier and was among the highest monthly levels since 1998.
Elsewhere, crude oil imports from Nigeria, which had long been the fifth-largest supplier to the US, continued to fall reflecting decreased demand from shuttered refineries on the US East coast.
April crude oil imports from OPEC were steady near year-earlier and month-earlier level, at 4.082 million bpd.
Along with Saudi Arabia, imports were up compared with a year earlier from Kuwait, Ecuador and Libya, while the flow from Algeria, Angola, Iraq and Venezuela, as well as Nigeria, was lower.
Volume from the Persian Gulf was steady with the March level, at 2.216 million bpd, but was up 3.1% from a year earlier.
Because of lower volumes in April compared with the year-earlier and month-earlier levels, OPEC's share of total US crude oil imports climbed by around 1 percentage point to 47.5%, the highest level since August 2011.
Refiners paid an average of $107.48/bbl for imported crude oil in April, down 3.2% from March, and 5% below a year earlier, EIA data showed.
Combined imported and domestic crude oil cost refiners $108.41/bbl, down 2.3% from March and 3.8% less than a year earlier.
Dow Jones Newswires