* Russia No. 4 supplier in Aug, Iran ranking down to No. 6
* Domestic oil product sales up y/y for 2nd straight month
* Pace of sales growth eases from July, outlook uncertain
(Recasts lead, adds background)
By Risa Maeda
TOKYO, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Japan’s imports of crude oil from Russia almost doubled in August from a year earlier, helping reduce the country’s reliance on Middle East supplies for the second month in a row from levels a year ago.
Monthly data by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) also showed on Thursday that Japan imported 31 percent less crude from Iran at 1.42 million kilolitres in August, versus a year ago, making it the sixth-largest supplier.
The drop underlined concerns about increasing pressure by the United States on Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme as Inpex Corp (1605.T), Japan’s top oil explorer, is seen likely to withdraw from Iran’s Azadegan oil field project. [ID:nTOE68T00F]
Russia, by contrast, rose to become the fourth-biggest supplier to Japan, its highest ranking since the country across the Sea of Japan started selling its new ESPO Blend crude from the Far East port of Kozmino in late 2009.
In July, Iran was the third-largest and Russia the fifth-largest suppliers to Japan, the world’s third-biggest oil consumer.
Imports of Russian origin rose by 93 percent from a year earlier to 1.61 million kl, the highest level in at least the past decade, according to a METI official, and accounted for 9 percent of total imports.
Japanese crude imports as a whole rose a meagre 0.3 percent to 17.68 million kl in August, extending year-on-year gains into a second month. [ID:nTOE68T09F]
Domestically, total oil product sales rose for a second consecutive month to 16.20 million kl, up 2.4 percent from a year earlier, the METI data showed.
The 2.4 percent rise, which came in weaker than a projected increase of 4 percent based on calculations from industry data, was helped by a 1.7 percent gain in gasoline sales, which make up over a fifth of fuel use.
But the pace of year-on-year growth in oil product sales eased from 4.6 percent in July, suggesting the boost to demand from a prolonged heat wave was fading.
The hottest summer on record in Japan increased the use of air-conditioners, which pushed up fuel demand from factories, electric power companies and vehicles.
But given a weather forecast for average to milder temperatures for the December-February winter period, the outlook for demand is gloomy. Also, there are signs that the export-led economy is being weighed down by a strong yen.
Japanese manufacturers turned more pessimistic about their outlook for the first time in almost two years this quarter in a sign that yen strength could derail the fragile economic recovery, the Bank of Japan tankan survey showed on Wednesday. [ID:nTOE68R09G]
Editing by Jane Baird