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Big Oil’s Secret World of Trading

With the future of fossil fuels in doubt, some energy companies are counting on a hidden army of commodities traders to ride to the rescue

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Engineers built the petroleum industry, but traders are increasingly seen as its saviors.

Engineers built the petroleum industry, but traders are increasingly seen as its saviors.

Photos: Getty Images; Sputnik/Reuters

It was a bleak moment for the oil industry. U.S. shale companies were failing by the dozen. Petrostates were on the brink of bankruptcy. Texas roughnecks and Kuwaiti princes alike had watched helplessly for months as the commodity that was their lifeblood tumbled to prices that had until recently seemed unthinkable. Below $50 a barrel, then below $40, then below $30.

But inside the central London headquarters of one of the world’s largest oil companies, there was an air of calm. It was January 2016. Bob Dudley had been at the helm of BP Plc for six years. He ought to have had as much reason to panic as anyone in the rest of his industry. The unflashy American had been predicting lower prices for months. He was being proved right, though that was hardly a reason to celebrate.