European oil and products stockpiles languished near four-year lows in March as high oil prices and a stalled economy depressed consumption and further cut crude processing despite previous refineries closures.
Crude and oil product stockpiles in 16 European countries stood at 1,072.52 million barrels in March, up 0.7 percent from the previous month, industry monitor Euroilstock's data showed on Wednesday.
Stockpiles were down 4.1 percent from a year ago, remaining near their lowest level since at least January 2008.
Crude oil prices jumped to highs not seen since 2008 of $128.40 per barrel at the start of March, and hit records in euros and sterling, further squeezing cash-strapped consumers in the euro zone.
High oil prices and poor refining margins have already led to the closure of some plants by Europe's biggest independent refiner Petroplus at the end of last year.
The closures lent some support to the refining sector as it boosted refining margins at competitors, but some of those gains were wiped out during March as oil prices rose.
As a result, refiners trimmed back utilization rates to 78.14 percent in March from 81.80 percent the month before bringing forward some spring maintenance work.
"We are losing money and today we have to reduce production at our refineries," Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of French oil major Total, told Reuters last month.
"We go unit by unit and it depends on various types of crude. We are bringing the maintenance forward. The thing today is that the market doesn't swallow this price of oil," he said.
Reuters data showed the March average complex margin at a Rotterdam refinery stood at $3.38 per barrel, down from $3.91 the previous month.
Holdings of crude in Europe were little changed in March, up 0.2 percent month on month but down 4.3 percent year on year.
Fuel oil inventories posted the biggest rise during the month, up 1.8 percent, followed by middle distillates up 1.7 percent, while gasoline was down 0.7 percent and naphtha fell by 2.5 percent.
Compared to March last year, product inventories fell across the board led by gasoline, down 5.3 percent, and naphtha down 4.2 percent. Middle distillates fell by 4.0 percent and fuels by 1.8 percent, the data showed.
On a country basis, southern European economies, historically the most dependent on cheap imports of Iranian crude, have shown the biggest changes in inventories on a monthly and yearly basis as a EU-embargo on Iranian oil import is nearing.
Stockpiles of crude and feedstocks in Spain fell slightly to 54.02 million barrels from 55.48 million barrels in February, although they firmed from last March's levels of 47.71 million barrels. Spain's biggest oil refiner Repsol stopped importing crude from Iran in January, and has replaced most of that supply with oil from Saudi Arabia.
In Greece, another large importer of Iranian oil, preliminary combined inventories were unchanged month on month at 10.95 million barrels, but were weaker than last March's 13.99 million barrels.
Greece, which relied on Iran for more than half of its imports during some months last year, is no longer importing crude from Tehran.