Oil is so much more than a fuel. It’s a force even bigger than its trillion-dollar market. It’s a weapon, a strategic asset, a curse. It’s a maker and spoiler of fortunes, a leading indicator and an echo chamber. Each has a part in determining oil prices.
During the mid-20th century, a group of multinational oil giants known as the Seven Sisters (including the companies that became Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP) dominated the market. Controlling the barrels from the wellhead to the gasoline tank, they traded mainly with each other on confidential terms; there was no open market. Countries with oil fields wrested more control with the formation in 1960 of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The cartel’s Arab members used their power for political and economic ends, shocking the global economy with an embargo in 1973. Prices spiked again in 1979 because of the Iranian revolution. In the 1980s, OPEC infighting, the emergence of new suppliers and the development of futures exchanges gave rise to new market-based prices. Today the international benchmark is Brent crude from the North Sea. The U.S. benchmark, West Texas Intermediate crude, which for years traded at a discount to Brent, has been close to parity in 2016. The U.S. repealed its 40-year-old ban on exporting crude in December 2015.