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Russian oil grabs bigger slice of Czech imports despite reduction aim

Fuga Bluemarine crude oil tanker lies at anchor near the terminal Kozmino in Nakhodka Bay

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Russian crude accounted for a bigger slice of the Czech Republic's oil imports in the first half, state oil pipeline operator MERO said on Monday, despite the country's plan to wean itself off Russian supply.

Russian oil accounted for 65% of total imports, up from 56% for the full year in 2022 and from 49% in 2021.

The Czech Republic imports oil through the Druzhba pipeline via Ukraine and through the IKL pipeline which links to the TAL pipeline in Germany.

"The share of oil imports from Russia (via the Druzhba pipeline) versus imports from other countries (via the IKL pipeline) in the first six months of this year was, rounded up, 65:35%," MERO said.

MERO's main customer is refiner ORLEN Unipetrol, a unit of Poland's PKN ORLEN, which operates the country's two refineries at Litvinov and Kralupy.

The Czechs can import Russian piped oil under an exemption from EU sanctions because the country cannot currently fully cover its needs of around 7 million metric tons per year from the alternative route via the IKL and TAL pipelines.

MERO has started an upgrade of TAL, which should allow a switch to fully non-Russian oil supply from the turn of 2024/2025.

ORLEN Unipetrol did not comment on the increased proportion of Russian supply beyond saying it operated in line with all regulations.

It said it was preparing the Litvinov refinery, which has an annual capacity of 5.4 million tons and runs on Russian oil, to convert to other blends in time for the upgrade of the TAL pipeline.

"In October, we will carry out a roughly one-month trial test at the Litvinov refinery, during which we will test the production technology there in processing exclusively non-Russian crude oils," ORLEN Unipetrol said, adding it would test crudes from the Middle East, South America and the North Sea.

Technological changes to process non-Russian oil will be carried out during a production break in April next year, it said.

"In addition to general maintenance and modernisation, which we regularly carry out approximately every four years, we will carry out technological modifications ...to enable the Litvinov refinery to switch to non-Russian crude oil after the TAL pipeline capacity expansion," it said.

The Industry and Trade Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; editing by Jason Neely)