China's refinery output ticked up in March from a year earlier, its first rise in five months as refiners ramped up supply amid signs of a recovery in demand.
Higher refinery production, coupled with the second-highest ever daily crude imports last month, point to a strong rebound in Chinese fuel demand after a tepid 0.5 percent rise in February, and three months of decline prior to that.
The first signs of recovery for the economy after the slowest growth on record in the first quarter could see fuel use rise.
"Sales are picking up for diesel. There seems to be some demand recovery from the logistics firms," said an official with top refiner Sinopec Corp based in Guangdong, the export hub that was one of the regions worst hit by the global financial crisis.
March refinery throughput rose 0.7 percent on year to 29.37 million tons, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Friday. This is equivalent to 6.92 million barrels per day (bpd), the highest daily rate since October 2008 and up 3 percent from February.
Rebounding fuel sales in the home market, plus a near 20 percent fall in net fuel imports, have helped thin earlier brimming inventories, giving refiners room to churn out more barrels.
CNPC, parent of PetroChina, plans to "moderately raise its crude processing volumes given the continuously declining overall fuel stocks", the largest state energy group said in its in-house newspaper China Petroleum News on Friday.
This reversed PetroChina's earlier plan to trim 2009 throughput by 1.4 percent, suggesting that demand may be bottoming out faster than the firm anticipated.
The world's third-largest economy expanded 6.1 percent in the first quarter on an annual base, in its slowest quarterly rise since records started in 1992, but continued strength in fixed-asset investment and a rebound in industrial output suggested China may already be on the recovery path.
Also bolstering fuel demand growth is sales of new cars, which hit a record 772,400 units last month, 10 percent above a year ago. A growing vehicle fleet will buoy consumption of gasoline, one of the fuels showing the quickest growth in use.
China, the world's No 5 crude producer, continued to scale back output, with March down 1.1 percent on year at 15.82 million tons, or 3.73 million bpd, and first-quarter output down 1.6 percent, the statistics bureau said.
The production cuts are in line with earlier forecasts by PetroChina, Asia's top oil and gas producer, to scale back 2009 output for the first time in many years as oil's near $100 slide from last July's peak forced closure of many marginal fields.