Who Determines the Price of Oil?

Question of the day: who and what is determining the price of oil and your gasoline and home heating bills? Don’t ask Uncle Sam, because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are running a regime marinated in oil that does not issue reports which explain the real determinants of petroleum pricing beyond the conventional supply-demand curves.

First, let us create a historical framework to provide some background. In the good ‘ole oil days, before the producer-countries’ cartel in the Third World gained pricing power, there were seven giant oil companies called the ‘seven sisters’ led by Standard Oil (now Exxon) and Shell. As chronicled in Robert Engler’s classic book, The Brotherhood of Oil, they were able to affect pricing through extra-market means. Economists called them a tight oligopoly.

OPEC later took their place at the table in the mid to late Seventies and set the price of crude oil at highly publicized meetings of the various member countries representatives from the Middle East, South America and Africa. Adjusting, ‘seven sisters’ concentrated their pricing and supply power downstream at the refining, pipeline and marketing levels.

Pricing power was never total but it was always complex, occurring in the interstices of an industry few outsiders understood, and fewer regulators could affect. Besides, natural gas was de-regulated between 1978 and 1993, after which its prices really took off.

Today, a third party has moved to the table-the New York Mercantile Exchange, a similar operates in London and a new one in Dubai. There, boisterous traders buy and sell futures contracts on the delivery of oil. But as Ben Mezrich, the author of the new book Rigged said recently, the dollar amounts of these futures contracts are far far larger than the actual oil deliveries they represent as they turn over and over at the Mercantile Exchange.

So now the critical resource of oil is driven by speculation at ever higher abstract electronic levels of futures trading. Increasingly, the distance becomes greater and greater between this abstract trading (fueled by rumors of storms in the Gulf of Mexico, or some possible political turmoil in a region of the world, or some other frightful excuse for bidding up) and the physical supply and demand for oil and its refined products.

These oil gamblers in New York and London try to justify their frenetic daily bidding by saying that these futures markets provide liquidity, and a clear price for oil. Alright, but who benefits when, how and where?

Certainly, the strain between physical supply and demand in recent years does not explain such extreme volatility. With OPEC countries down to supplying only 40 percent of the world production, Chinese demand for oil growing fast, and the expansion of production by Saudi Arabia and others to meet this demand, crude oil supplies are not tight enough to explain such pricing behavior.

Old factors like inadequate oil company investment in refinery capacity, longer down times for repairs than some observers believe necessary, and the slumping dollar are factors that western governments, especially the Bush regime, have not wanted to investigate. After all, with consumers paying sky-high prices for these fuels, free market theorists are supposed to expect expanded supplies from recoverable reserves to grow. But, of course, the global market for oil is anything but a free market from the producers- both corporate and governmental- toward the downstream companies to the consumers.

In recent days, the price of crude oil escalated to over $90 a barrel, fluctuating up to a high of $96 a barrel. Yet the average price of gasoline in the United States-around $3.00 per gallon-is about what it was earlier this year when the price of crude oil was around $60 a barrel. Why the disconnect?

“It’s a big gambling hall,” The Washington Post quotes Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst at Oppenheimer. “This time it’s just speculation,” Peter C. Fusaro, chairman of Global Change Associates, told the Post, adding, “There’s a large bet out there that prices will continue to trend higher. But it’s detached from fundamentals because there’s no shortage of oil.”

Meanwhile, the government of Big Oil runs Washington, D.C. It thumbed its nose at pleas from then Chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) who asked the major companies, swimming in massive profits, to contribute some charitable dollars to help the poor pay for their winter home heating bills, and has smugly watched the major Presidential candidates avoid the subject in their debates and declarations.

Oil companies seem to spend more executive effort looking for oil by merging with other companies (note the unchallenged merger of Exxon and Mobil under the Clinton administration) than with developing efficient oil-producing and consuming technology or expanding their solar energy subsidiaries.

So long as the price of crude oil is set by speculators on trading floors, so long as the oil-indentured politicians are not challenged by new candidates standing tall for people and environments, so long as we do not protest for change and press ourselves to prevent wasteful habits and uses, get ready for higher oil prices.



Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!