On a still afternoon under a hot Oklahoma sun, neither a cloud nor an ounce of "volatility" was in sight. Anything but. All one saw were the somnolent tanks filled with oil, hundreds of them, spread over the rolling hills, some brand-new, some more than 70 years old, and some holding, inside their silver or rust-orange skins, more than half a million barrels of oil each.
This is Cushing, Oklahoma, the gathering point for the light, sweet crude oil known as West Texas Intermediate -- or just WTI. It is the oil whose price you hear announced every day, as in "WTI closed today at …." Cushing proclaims itself, as the sign says when you ride into town, the "pipeline crossroads of the world." Through it passes the network of pipes that carry oil from Texas and Oklahoma and New Mexico, from Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, and from Canada too, into Cushing's tanks, where buyers take title before moving the oil onward to refineries where it is turned into gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, home heating oil, and all the other products that people actually use.
But that is not what makes Cushing so significant. After all, there are other places in the world through which much more oil flows. Cushing plays a unique role in the new global oil industry because WTI is the preeminent benchmark against which other oils are priced. Every day, billions of "paper barrels" of light, sweet crude are traded on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange in lower Manhattan and, in ever increasing volumes, at electron speed around the world, an astonishing virtual commerce that no matter how massive in scale, still connects back somehow to a barrel of oil in Cushing changing owners.
That frenetic daily trading has helped turn oil into something new -- not only a physical commodity critical to the security and economic viability of nations but also a financial asset, part of that great instantaneous exchange of stocks, bonds, currencies, and everything else that makes up the world's financial portfolio. Today, the daily trade in those "paper barrels" -- crude oil futures -- is more than 10 times the world's daily consumption of physical barrels of oil. Add in the trades that take place on other exchanges or outside them entirely, and the ratio may be as much as 30 times greater. And though the oil may flow steadily in and out of Cushing at a stately 4 miles per hour, the global oil market is anything but stable.
An FP Special Report
That's why, as I sat down to work on a new edition of The Prize and considered what had changed since the early 1990s, when I wrote this history of the world's most valuable, and misunderstood, commodity, the word "volatility" kept springing to mind. How could it not? Indeed, when people are talking about volatility, they are often thinking oil. On July 11, 2008, WTI hit $147.27. Exactly a year later, it was $59.87. In between, in December, it fell as low as $32.40. (And don't forget a little more than a decade ago, when it was as low as $10 a barrel and consumers were supposedly going to swim forever in a sea of cheap oil.)
These wild swings don't just affect the "hedgers" (oil producers, airlines, heating oil dealers, etc.) and the "speculators," the financial players. They show up in the changing prices at the gasoline station. They stir political passions and feed consumers' suspicions. Volatility also makes it more difficult to plan future energy investments, whether in oil and gas or in renewable and alternative fuels. And it can have a cataclysmic impact on the world economy. After all, Detroit was knocked flat on its back by what happened at the gasoline pump in 2007 and 2008 even before the credit crisis. The enormous impact of these swings is why British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were recently moved to call for a global solution to "destructive volatility." But, they were forced to add, "There are no easy solutions."
This volatility is part of the new age of oil. For though Cushing looks pretty much the same as it did when The Prize came out, the world of oil looks very different. Some talk today about "the end of oil." If so, others reply, we are entering its very long goodbye. One characteristic of this new age is that oil has developed a split personality -- as a physical commodity but also now as a financial asset. Three other defining characteristics of this new age are the globalization of the demand for oil, a vast shift from even a decade ago; the rise of climate change as a political factor shaping decisions on how we will use oil, and how much of it, in the future; and the drive for new technologies that could dramatically affect oil along with the rest of the energy portfolio.
The Capital of Oil
A brief history of Cushing, Oklahoma
The cast of characters in the oil business has also grown and changed. Some oil companies have become "supermajors," such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, while others, such as Amoco and ARCO, have just disappeared. "Big oil" no longer means the traditional international oil companies, their logos instantly recognizable from corner gas stations, but rather much larger state-owned companies, which, along with governments, today control more than 80 percent of the world's oil reserves. Fifteen of the world's 20 largest oil companies are now state-owned.
The cast of oil traders has also much expanded. Today's global oil game now includes pension funds, institutional money managers, endowments, and hedge funds, as well as individual investors and day traders. The managers at the pension funds and the university endowments see themselves as engaged in "asset allocation," hedging risks and diversifying to protect retirees' incomes and faculty salaries. But, technically, they too are part of the massive growth in the ranks of the new oil speculators.
With all these changes, the very future of this most vital commodity is now being seriously questioned, debated, and challenged, even as the world will need more of it than ever before. Both the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency project that, even accounting for gains in efficiency, global energy use will increase almost 50 percent from 2006 to 2030 -- and that oil will continue to provide 30 percent or more of the world's energy in 2030.
But will it?