By Julia Payne
LONDON (Reuters) - Russia's key crude oil grade, Urals, has been trading at levels not seen in Europe since early March as refiners snap up the last barrels ahead of an European Union embargo, three traders familiar with the dealings said this week.
Urals oil is still flowing to European refiners under term deals concluded prior to February 2022. From early December, EU companies will no longer be able to buy Russian seaborne crude while the Group of Seven is also studying a Russian oil price cap.
Recent deals for September-loading Urals cargoes were done at benchmark dated Brent minus $22-25 a barrel on a delivered basis to Rotterdam, three traders said, up $7-$10 from previous estimates. For the Mediterranean, the price has risen to $18 below dated Brent on a delivered basis.
The prices are also two-tiered with crude from Russia's state-owned Rosneft trading below that from private firms.
"As winter gets closer and EU oil embargo looms, we have one, maximum two months to trade Russian volumes, then it's going to be too risky," one of the traders said.
While the discount has narrowed, Russia will be making less per barrel than before as oil futures themselves have slid into the $90s a barrel. In June, when futures averaged $115 a barrel and dated Brent about $121, Russia made $86 a barrel after taking into account its biggest discount.
Taking average August so far, Russia will make around $78 a barrel. However, on a proportional basis and relative to other producers, while oil prices have dropped some $25 a barrel, Russian oil has only fallen $8.
Urals, which is exported from Russia's Baltic and Black Sea ports, has been trading at record discounts since Russia's invasion of Ukraine due to Western financial sanctions on Moscow.
Buyers have jumped on the cheap grade despite financial complications, with China and India ramping up Russian oil purchases to record levels, traders said.
The price of ESPO Blend, exported from Russia's far-eastern port of Kozmino, has similarly rebounded. The grade hit parity with the Dubai benchmark earlier this month from discounts of more than $20 a barrel.
In July, the EU tweaked sanctions on Russia easing payment restrictions for oil shipments from state-owned firms Rosneft and Gazpromneft making it easier to deal with their volumes.
While Asia refiners have been the main support for Russian barrels, they may become more cautious once the embargo comes into effect, traders said.
(Reporting by Julia Payne and Reuters reporters; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)