Understanding Crude Oil Pricing

Oil is the world’s most valuably traded commodity, as well as most actively traded.  There are two types of crude oil pricing – spot pricing and contract pricing.  Spot pricing is priced today with delivery in a day or two, whereas contract pricing is for delivery for a specific period of time.

Not all crudes are created equal.  The benchmark crude for the United States, West Texas intermediate (WTI), has desirable qualities that make it ideal for refining into gasoline and other petroleum-based products and thus trades at a higher price.  The international benchmark is Brent, from the North Sea, and a third benchmark crude, Dubai (also known as Fateh in the United Arab Emirates) is generally used for pricing Persian Gulf crude exports to Asia.  All crude oil is priced in US dollars per barrel (42 gallons) on the international marketplace.

Spot pricing is best used for the daily price of oil, and also for historical pricing.  The Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistics-keeping arm of the US Department of Energy, has spot pricing for WTI back to 1986 and can be obtained on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis.  Current prices are released weekly.  The EIA also has Brent spot pricing from 1987 to the present. Helpful Bloomberg tickers to pull current and historical spot pricing for WIT are USCRWTIC and EUCRBREN for Brent.

Contract pricing is for a specific delivery time.  For example, the contract for March 2015 delivery of WTI started on November 23, 2009 and will end on February 20, 2015, with delivery scheduled for between March 1, 2015 and March 31, 2015.  There are currently at least 77 separate contracts for future delivery, and these constitute the “forward strip”.  Futures pricing can be obtained for both WTI and Brent on Bloomberg by using the forward curve, or CCRV.