* Benchmarks fall about 4% in March, gain around 22% in Q1
* OPEC+ panel lowers oil demand growth forecast
* Macron orders COVID-19 lockdown in France, closes schools
* U.S. crude inventories fall as refineries ramp up -EIA
* U.S. crude output in January remains 13% lower yr/yr - EIA (New throughout; updates prices, market activity and comments to settlement)
By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK, March 31 (Reuters) - Oil prices fell about 2% on Wednesday as fresh lockdowns in Europe stoked fuel consumption fears and a pessimistic demand outlook from OPEC and its allies ahead of their meeting to decide on production curbs.
Brent crude LCOc1 for May, which expired on Wednesday, settled at $63.54 a barrel, down 60 cents, or 0.9%. The more active contract for June LCOc2 ended $1.43, or 2.2%, lower at $62.74.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude CLc1 futures closed at $59.16 a barrel, losing $1.39, or 2.3%.
Brent was down 3.9% for the month and up 22.6% for the three months ended March 31. WTI fell 3.8% in March and rose 21.9% for the quarter.
Prices rose in the quarter mainly due to demand-recovery optimism after COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out in the new year. However, those hopes were dampened this month amid a resurgence in cases that threaten to overwhelm hospitals in European countries and curtail demand for fuel.
Oil prices on Wednesday extended their losses after President Emmanuel Macron ordered France into its third national lockdown and said schools would close for three weeks as he sought to push back a third wave of COVID-19 infections. was about the time the market tanked," said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho Securities. "They cannot get their act together with controlling the virus or getting some kind of vaccine program together."
A downward revision of OPEC+ oil demand growth forecast for this year by 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) also weighed on prices. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies, together called OPEC+, are set to meet on Thursday, to decide on output policy. this pessimistic outlook, it seems likely that the production quotas will be left in place for another month," said Commerzbank (DE: CBKG ) analyst Eugen Weinberg.
On Wednesday, the Joint Technical Committee, which advises the group of oil-producing nations that includes Saudi Arabia and Russia made no formal recommendation, three OPEC+ sources said. Options, which the ministers are set to consider on Thursday, include an output roll-over and a gradual increase, two OPEC+ sources said.
OPEC+ are currently curbing output by just over 7 million bpd in a bid to support prices and reduce oversupply. Saudi Arabia has added to those cuts with an additional 1 million bpd.
"The oil market is still playing a guessing game today as to what supply policy OPEC+ will set out at tomorrow's meeting, but the $64 per barrel Brent price signals that traders expect a cautious approach from the alliance," said Rystad Energy's analyst Louise Dickson.
Kuwait's Oil Minister Mohammad Abdulatif al-Fares expressed "cautious optimism" on Wednesday that global oil demand will improve as COVID-19 vaccination programmes gather pace and industrial output recovers. the price fall, U.S. crude stocks fell unexpectedly last week as refinery runs increased, shrinking by 876,000 barrels in the last week, compared with analysts' expectations for an increase of 107,000 barrels, the Energy Information Administration said. EIA/S
Also, crude output in the United States, the world's top producer, slipped to 11.1 million bpd in January, according to the latest monthly data, and remained 13.1% lower than year-ago levels. EIA/PSM
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