Oil still plays an important role in the global economy despite the continued efforts to reduce its use and to find alternative green energy sources. In the early days, finding oil during a drill was considered somewhat of a nuisance as the intended treasures were normally water or salt. It wasn't until 1847 that the first commercial oil well was drilled in the Absheron Peninsula, Azerbaijan. The U.S. petroleum industry was born 12 years later, in 1859, with intentional drilling near Titusville, Pennsylvania. (Drilling in the United States began in the early 1800s, but they were drilling for brine so any oil discovery was accidental.)

While much of the early demand for oil was for kerosene and oil lamps, it wasn't until 1901 that the first commercial well capable of mass production was drilled at a site known as Spindletop in southeastern Texas. This site produced more than 100,000 barrels of oil in one day, more than all the other oil-producing wells in the United States combined. Many would argue that the modern oil era was born that day in 1901, as oil was soon to replace coal as the world's primary fuel source.

The use of oil in fuels continues to be the primary factor in making it a high-demand commodity around the globe, but how are prices determined?

Key Takeaways

  • Like most commodities, the fundamental driver of oil's price is supply and demand in the market.
  • Oil markets are composed of speculators who are betting on price moves, and hedgers who are limiting risk in the production or consumption of oil.
  • Oil supply is controlled somewhat by a cartel of oil-producing nations called OPEC.
  • Oil demand is driven by everything from gasoline for cars and airline travel to electrical generation.

What Drives Oil Prices?

The Determinants of Oil Prices

With oil's stature as a high-demand global commodity comes the possibility that major fluctuations in price can have a significant economic impact. The two primary factors that impact the price of oil are:

The concept of supply and demand is fairly straightforward. As demand increases (or supply decreases) the price should go up. As demand decreases (or supply increases) the price should go down. Sounds simple?

Not quite. The price of oil as we know it is actually set in the oil futures market. An oil futures contract is a binding agreement that gives one the right to purchase oil by the barrel at a predefined price on a predefined date in the future. Under a futures contract, both the buyer and the seller are obligated to fulfill their side of the transaction on the specified date.

In the spring of 2020, oil prices collapsed amid the economic slowdown. OPEC and its allies agreed to historic production cuts to stabilize prices, but they dropped to 20-year lows.

The following are two types of futures traders:

An example of a hedger would be an airline buying oil futures to guard against potential rising prices. An example of a speculator would be someone who is just guessing the price direction and has no intention of actually buying the product. According to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the majority of futures trading done by speculators whereby the purchaser of a futures contract takes possession of the commodity is less than 3%.

The other key factor in determining oil prices is sentiment. The mere belief that oil demand will increase dramatically at some point in the future can result in a dramatic increase in oil prices in the present, as speculators and hedgers alike snap up oil futures contracts. Of course, the opposite is also true. The mere belief that oil demand will decrease at some point in the future can result in a dramatic decrease in prices in the present as oil futures contracts are sold (possibly sold short as well), which means that prices can hinge on little more than market psychology.

When the Economics of Oil Prices Don't Add Up

Basic supply and demand theory states that the more a product is produced, the more cheaply it should sell, all things being equal. It's a symbiotic dance. The reason more of a good was produced in the first place is because it became more economically efficient (or no less economically efficient) to do so. If someone were to invent a well stimulation technique that could double an oil field's output for only a small incremental cost, then with demand staying static, prices should fall.

Actually, there have been periods of time when supply has increased. Oil production in North America was at an all-time zenith in 2019, with fields in North Dakota and Alberta as fruitful as ever.  Since the internal combustion engine still predominates on our roads, and demand hasn’t kept up with supply, wouldn't you expect that gas was selling for nickels a gallon at that time?

This is where theory pushes up against practice. Production was high, but distribution and refinement were not able to keep up with it. The United States has built an average of one refinery per decade (construction has slowed to a trickle since the 1970s). There's actually a net loss: the United States has two fewer refineries than it did in 2009.  Still, the 135 remaining refineries in the country have more capacity than any other country's capacity by a large margin. The reason we're not awash in cheap oil is that those refineries operate at 90% of capacity. Ask a refiner, and they’ll tell you that excess capacity is there to meet future demand.

Commodity Price Cycle Affecting Oil Prices

Additionally, from a historical perspective, there appears to be a possible 29-year (plus or minus one or two years) cycle that governs the behavior of commodity prices in general. Since the beginning of oil's rise as a high-demand commodity in the early 1900s, major peaks in the commodities index have occurred in 1920, 1958, and 1980. Oil peaked with the commodities index in both 1920 and 1980. (Note: there was no real peak in oil in 1958 because it had been moving in a sideways trend since 1948 and continued to do so through 1968.) It is important to note that supply, demand, and sentiment take precedence over cycles because cycles are just guidelines, not rules.

Market Forces Impacting Oil Prices

Then there's the problem of cartels. Probably the single biggest influencer of oil prices is OPEC, made up of 13 countries (Algeria, Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela); collectively, OPEC controls 40% of the world's supply of oil.

Although the organization's charter doesn't explicitly state this, OPEC was founded in the 1960s to—put it crudely—fix oil and gas prices. By restricting production, OPEC could force prices to rise, and thereby theoretically enjoy greater profits than if its member countries had each sold on the world market at the going rate. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, it followed this sound, if somewhat unethical, strategy.

To quote P. J. O'Rourke, "certain people enter cartels because of greed; then, because of greed, they try to get out of the cartels." According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, OPEC member countries often exceed their quotas, selling a few million extra barrels knowing that enforcers can't really stop them from doing so. With Canada, China, Russia, and the United States as non-members—and increasing their own output—OPEC is becoming limited in its ability to, as its mission euphemistically states, "ensure the stabilization of oil markets in order to secure an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consumers."

While the consortium has vowed to keep the price of oil above $100 a barrel for the foreseeable future, in mid-2014, it refused to cut oil production, even as prices began to tumble. As a result, the cost of crude fell from a peak of above $100 a barrel to below $50 a barrel. As of January 2021, oil prices are hovering above $52.

The Bottom Line

Unlike most products, oil prices are not determined entirely by supply, demand, and market sentiment toward the physical product. Rather, supply, demand, and sentiment toward oil futures contracts, which are traded heavily by speculators, play a dominant role in price determination. Cyclical trends in the commodities market may also play a role. Regardless of how the price is ultimately determined, based on its use in fuels and countless consumer goods, it appears that oil will continue to be in high demand for the foreseeable future.