* March crude imports at 9.26 mln bpd, 10 pct below Feb
* March fuel exports at highest in at least 7 yrs on new plant
* Gas imports eased as heating season ended
By Chen Aizhu and Meng Meng
SINGAPORE/SHANGHAI, April 12 (Reuters) - China’s March crude oil imports fell from the previous month as state-owned refiners began maintenance, but refined fuel exports soared to the highest in at least seven years as a new private refinery ran at full capacity, customs data showed on Friday.
Crude oil imports last month were 39.34 million tonnes, or 9.26 million barrels per day (bpd), the lowest since October 2018, data from the General Administration of Customs showed. That is down 9.4 percent from 10.23 million bpd in February but up 0.4 percent from a year earlier.
At least six Chinese state-owned refineries plan to close for maintenance in 2019 with the bulk of the closures occurring during the second quarter of the year before fuel demand peaks in the third quarter.
The fall in imports also came after China’s stockpiling efforts for its strategic reserves eased in March in response to higher crude prices, assessments from Refinitv Oil Research showed.
“A flurry of refiners started maintenance, with shutdowns mainly happening in March to May,” said Zhou Guoxia, crude analyst with consultancy JLC, adding that imports also fell as independent refiner delayed buying to this month to benefit from a cut in the value-added tax for imports that started on April 1.
For the first quarter, crude oil imports rose 8.2 percent from a year earlier to a record 121.17 million tonnes, or about 9.83 million bpd.
That was 740,000 bpd more than the rate of 9.09 million bpd during the first quarter last year.
“State-run refiners were the main contributor to the increases in the first quarter after drawing down stocks significantly late last year,” said Seng Yick Tee of consultancy SIA Energy.
Independent also took advantage of the cheaper crude prices and rushed to utilise the first batch of non-state trading imports quotas, Tee added.
Last month, refined fuel exports surged to 7.21 million tonnes, the highest monthly rate in Reuters records going back to 2012, a strong indication of growing domestic fuel surplus as privately owned Hengli Petrochemical’s 400,000-bpd plant reaches full operation.
China’s total natural gas imports also eased amid warmer weather and the end of heating season.
Gas arrivals via pipeline as well as liquefied natural gas cargoes were 6.94 million tonnes in March, down from February’s 7.57 million tonnes.
Reporting by Meng Meng and Aizhu Chen