Oil Price History—Highs and Lows Since 1970
What Makes Oil Prices So Volatile?
Historically, oil prices in the 20th century remained stable, in real terms, until the 1970s. Since then, political, economic, and other changes have rocked the oil landscape. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic sent prices plummeting in April. Prices have recovered as of March 2021.
- Traders’ market perceptions influence oil prices more than actual global supply and demand do.
- With shale oil extraction, the United States became the largest oil producer in the world.
- In 2020, oil prices plunged to a negative value in the wake of an abrupt drop in worldwide demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Prices have returned to pre-pandemic levels as of March 2021.
Oil Prices in the 1960s and 1970s
Global oil prices in the 20th century generally ranged between $1.00 and $2.00 per barrel (/b) until 1970. That's about $20/b to $40/b when adjusted for inflation. The United States was the world's dominant oil producer at that time. It regulated prices. Domestic oil was plentiful. Cheap oil and gas made the expansion of interstate highways, interstate trucking, and auto ownership part of the American Dream. But multiple changes have occurred since then.
In 1960, Saudi Arabia and other foreign oil-exporting nations formed OPEC. They wanted more control over their most valuable natural resource. In 1971, regulators allowed U.S. companies to pump as much oil as they wanted. They began using up surplus reserves. As supply fell, prices rose. America became vulnerable to future shortages.
OPEC didn't really begin flex its pricing muscle until President Richard Nixon effectively took the U.S. dollar off of the gold standard in 1971. The value of the dollar plummeted, taking oil revenues down with it.
All oil contracts are traded in U.S. dollars, so oil prices follow the value of the dollar.
OPEC halted oil exports to the United States in 1973. Its primary goal was to boost oil prices. It also wanted to punish America for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Congress created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ensure an adequate supply of petroleum products and prevent future shortages.
Why Oil Prices Are Volatile
Since the 1970s, oil prices have become more volatile. They're affected by more than the laws of supply and demand. Oil prices are determined in the short run by oil futures contracts on the commodities markets. This means that in the short run, commodities traders can also affect oil prices. They can drive prices up even if they only think there will be a surge in demand, such as during the summer driving season. They can lower prices if they think there will be a dropoff in demand. That usually occurs as demand falls in the winter.
US Shale Oil Production
In 2015, new U.S. production of shale oil increased global oil supply. By Jan. 19, 2016, the addition to supply had driven global oil prices down to a 13-year low of around $27/b. By November, OPEC had had enough. It cut production to revive prices. By April 2019, global prices topped $71/b. They remained in that range until early 2020.
Today's oil prices fluctuate due to constantly changing conditions.
In January 2020, many governments began restricting travel and closing businesses to stem the coronavirus pandemic. Demand for oil began falling. In the first quarter of 2020, oil consumption averaged 94.4 million barrels per day (b/d), down 5.6 million b/d from the prior year.
Through the first quarter, OPEC and its members were abiding by an agreement to limit production. That agreement expired on March 31, 2020. At the March 6, 2020, meeting, Russia refused to lower production. OPEC responded by announcing it would increase production. As storage facilities filled, prices plummeted into negative territory. No one wanted delivery of oil, since there was hardly any place to store it. In April 2020, prices for a barrel of oil fell to an unprecedented negative oil price: around -$37/b in the United States for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) at Cushing and $9/b internationally for Brent oil. On April 12, 2020, OPEC and Russia agreed to lower output to support prices.
At its most recent April 1, 2021, meeting OPEC decided to continue limiting oil production.
Oil Prices by Year: Average, High, Low, and Events
The following chart shows the nominal value for imported crude oil according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The first column shows the average annual price. It's followed by the monthly high and low oil prices for that year. The last column shows the reasons and accompanying events for the price variations.
|1974||$12.52||$9.59||$13.06||OPEC oil embargo ended|
|1977||$14.53||$14.11||$14.76||Fed raised and lowered rates|
|1978||$14.57||$14.40||$14.94||Fed raised and lowered rates|
|1979||$21.57||$15.50||$28.91||Iran-Iraq War, fed rate 20%|
|1980||$33.86||$30.75||$35.63||Iran oil embargo|
|1981||$37.10||$35.43||$39.00||Reagan cut taxes|
|1982||$33.57||$32.78||$35.54||Recession ends inflation|
|1987||$18.14||$16.45||$19.32||OPEC added to supply|
|1991||$18.73||$17.17||$22.30||SPR released oil|
|1994||$15.54||$12.90||$17.52||NAFTA allowed cheap oil from Mexico|
|2001||$21.99||$15.95||$24.97||Recession and 9/11|
|2006||$59.05||$52.70||$67.99||Bernanke becomes Fed chair|
|2012||$101.09||$92.18||$108.54||Iran threatened Straits of Hormuz|
|2014||$89.63||$57.36||$100.26||The dollar rose 15%|
|2015||$46.34||$33.16||$58.89||U.S. shale oil increased|
|2017||$48.98||$44.03||$57.44||OPEC cut oil supply to keep prices stable|
|2020||$37.24||$16.74||$53.96||Pandemic reduced demand|