Oil Price History With Highs and Lows Since 1974

What Makes Oil Prices So Volatile

oil price history
••• Credit: Wayne Eastep/Getty Images

From 1948 to 1970, oil prices ranged between $2.50 and $3.00 a barrel. That's around $17 to $19 a barrel if adjusted for inflation. The United States was the world's dominant oil producer. 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 America Dream. Families moved in droves to the suburbs.

In 1960, Saudi Arabia and other foreign oil-exporting nations formed OPEC. They wanted more control over oil prices. 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 did not really flex its pricing muscle until President 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

In 1973, OPEC halted oil exports to the United States. Its primary goal was to boost oil prices. It also wanted to punish America for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. To prevent future shortages, Congress created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to provide a 90-day supply.

Since 1974, oil prices have been volatile.

 They are affected by more than the laws of supply and demand. Oil prices are determined by oil futures contracts on the commodities markets.  That means commodities traders control oil prices. They will drive prices up even if they only think there will be a surge in demand, such as during the summer driving season, or a shortage, such as during the Libyan uprising.

 

In 2011, oil prices began to develop a predictable seasonal swing. Prices rise in the spring as oil futures traders anticipate high demand for summer vacation driving. Once demand has peaked, prices normally drop in the fall and winter. 

Oil Prices by Year: Average, High, Low, and Events

The following chart shows the prices for imported oil from Energy Information Administration. The first column shows the average annual price. It's followed by the high and low oil prices that year and the month they occurred. It points out reasons for the price variations and the accompanying events. 

Year Average Low High Causes
1973    $4.08              n.a.                n.a. 
1974  $12.52   $9.59  Jan  $13.06  JunOPEC oil embargo ended.
1975  $13.95 $12.77  Jan  $15.04  NovStagflation.
1976  $13.48 $13.27  Jan  $13.71  DecEconomy recovered.
1977  $14.53 $14.11  Jan  $14.76  DecFed raised and lowered rates.
1978  $14.57 $14.41  Feb  $14.94  Dec
1979  $21.57 $15.50  Jan  $28.91  DecIran-Iraq War. Fed rate 20%.
1980  $33.86 $30.75  Jan  $35.63  DecIran oil embargo.
1981  $37.10 $35.43  Oct  $39.00  FebReagan cut taxes.
1982  $33.57 $32.78  May  $35.54  JanRecession ends inflation. 
1983  $29.31 $27.95  Apr  $31.40  Jan 
1984  $28.88 $28.02  Dec  $29.26 May 
1985  $26.99 $26.21  Dec  $27.60  May 
1986  $13.93 $10.91  Jul  $24.93  JanOPEC adds to supply.
1987  $18.14 $16.45  Jan  $19.32  Aug
1988  $14.60 $12.66  Nov  $15.93  May 
1989  $18.07 $16.04  Jan  $20.05  Dec 
1990  $23.73 $15.15  Jun  $32.88  OctGulf War.
1991  $18.73 $17.17  Dec  $22.30  JanSPR released oil.
1992  $18.21 $16.00  Feb  $19.83  Jun 
1993  $16.13 $12.56  Dec  $18.35  Apr 
1994  $15.54 $12.90  Feb  $17.52  JulNAFTA allowed cheap oil.
1995  $17.14 $16.29  Oct  $18.56  May 
1996  $20.62 $17.48  Jan  $23.22  Oct 
1997  $18.49 $15.95  Dec  $23.02  Jan 
1998  $12.07   $9.39  Dec  $14.33  Jan 
1999  $17.27 $10.16  Jan  $24.35  DecPrices doubled.
2000  $27.72 $24.29  Apr  $30.56  Sep 
2001  $21.99 $15.95  Dec  $24.63  MayRecession.  9/11 attack.
2002  $23.71 $17.04  Jan  $27.14  SepAfghanistan War.
2003  $27.73 $24.48  Apr  $32.23  Feb 
2004  $35.89 $30.11  Jan  $45.36  Oct 
2005  $48.89 $37.56  Jan  $58.79  SepHurricane Katrina.
2006  $59.05 $52.70  Oct  $67.99  JulBernanke becomes Fed chair.
2007  $67.19 $49.57  Jan  $85.53  Nov 
2008  $92.57 $35.59  Dec$127.77  Jul 
2009  $59.04 $36.84  Jan  $74.40  NovGreat Recession
2010  $75.83 $73.73  Feb  $85.59  Dec 
2011$102.58 $87.61  Jan $107.98 May 
2012$101.09 $92.18  Jun $108.54  AprIran threatened Straits of Hormuz.
2013  $98.12 $90.36  Nov $104.16  Aug
2014  $89.63 $57.36  Dec $100.26 JunDollar rose 15%. U.S. shale oil increased.
2015  $46.34 $33.16  Dec   $58.89 Jun
2016  $38.17 $26.66  Feb   $46.72 DecDollar fell and OPEC cut oil supply.
2017  $48.73 $43.93  Jun   $54.38 Dec

 

In Depth: Oil Price Forecast | Sunni/Shiite Conflict | Shale Oil Boom and Bust | U.S. Nuclear Power

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