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China is storing an epic amount of oil at sea. Here's why

New York (CNN Business)China bought so much foreign oil at dirt-cheap prices this spring that a massive traffic jam of tankers has formed at sea waiting to offload crude.

As of June 29, China -- the world's second-largest consumer of oil after the United States -- had amassed 73 million barrels of oil on 59 different ships floating at sea off the country's northern coast, according to ClipperData, which tracks waterborne flows of crude oil in real-time. For context, that is three-quarters of the demand for the entire planet.

Barrels arriving today would have been purchased in March and April -- when oil prices were melting down because of the pandemic. US crude crashed below zero on April 20 for the first time ever.

China's so-called floating storage -- defined as barrels of oil on vessels waiting for seven days or longer -- has nearly quadrupled since the end of May, according to ClipperData. Not only is that the most on record going back to early 2015, it's up seven-fold from the monthly average during the first quarter of 2020.

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