By on June 9, 2008

0013729ece6b0900b4c506.jpgIn response to my manifesto on The Truth About High Gas Prices, a couple of people close to me confidentially told me that they thought I was nuts for predicting sub-$80 per barrel oil “in the not too distant future.” According to an economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve, I should have gone lower with my prognostication. Stephen Brown observes that cheap Saudi Arabian oil costs just $4 a barrel to produce. The most expensive oil on the market today, and the oil that set’s the world price, known as the “final barrel” or equilibrium price, is just $50 per barrel. Shawn Tully, CNNMoney editor, concludes, “It's even possible that, a few years hence, we could see a sustained period of plentiful oil supplies and low prices, meaning $50 or below.” But that doesn’t mean that it won’t get worse before it gets better. Today, the oil futures bubble inflated to a new record high above $135 a barrel, before settling back down to $134.35.

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44 Comments on “Update: Why Oil Prices Will Tank...”

  • avatar

    It may be good to discuss the difference between the futures price and the real price. The higher futures price is usually what is quoted (as is here) and affects the real price eventually, but the futures price is completely speculation and not what oil actually being physically sold today is selling for.

  • avatar

    I’m probably doing this wrong, but the latest update for WTI spot prices I could find was $134.30, so it looks to me like the oil physically sold today was within cents of the July futures price…


  • avatar

    Stephen Brown is cherry picking the costs of Saudi oil production at $4. That is old stock. New stock is much more costly and poorer grades of oil. Canadian tar sands cost $30bbl before going to market to produce. Costs for the ultra deep Jack2 well are expected in the $80-100bbl range. Also the North Sea fields are falling in oil production. Mexico’s oil fields are crashing in production and expected to become an oil importer in 7 years, them being our #4 source of oil. The alaskan pipeline is within 100k bbl a day above minimum operating level after production has gone from a high of near 1mbblsday to 400kbbls a day (mol is 300kbblsday).

    There are too many declines to see $50 oil. Will oil settle down, yes, but not by half. There is simply to much demand. I do not have enough time to expand upon this.

    The Saudi’s are having a hard time offsetting their increased consumption and field declines to raise output if they want to or not. Reserves do NOT equal production.

  • avatar

    If gas TODAY costs $4-50 to produce and TODAY it’s selling for $135 a barrel, what could logically lead you to believe that the price will drop significantly? Where’s the actual reasoning? Telling me that oil is far less expensive today to produce than to buy doesn’t change reality.

    If there’s no reason to believe that production will become less costly, why should anybody believe the price will drop without significant change in demand?

    You can’t just SAY stuff and have it be taken seriously. BACK IT UP. I’m not an expert, but I’m backing up my argument this way: I see $4-50 oil being sold for $135; I expect production costs to stay steady or rise, because that’s all I have seen; I expect prices to stay steady at $135 or to rise. Is this logic flawed, given that I’ve been given no evidence of the possibility of drop in prices (except the opinions of analysts, whose reasonings were also omitted?)

  • avatar

    Is this logic flawed, given that I’ve been given no evidence of the possibility of drop in prices (except the opinions of analysts, whose reasonings were also omitted?)

    Yep, it is flawed. The CNN article makes a classic macroeconomic point — long-run economic profits are zero.

    When there is an extraordinary amount of money to be made in something, suppliers will try to jump into it. Everybody wants to earn the big money, and these anomaly periods attract producers who want into the game. The suppliers jumping in will increase the supply, which lowers the price. Eventually, with the influx of suppliers trying to get a chunk of this brass ring, prices end up back to where profits are normal.

    The OPEC cartel fell apart during the seventies for two basic reasons: demand declined as people figured out how to be more efficient, and greed among the cartel members brought about by the high prices encouraged them to cheat.

    There are almost no examples of a commodity good maintaining extraordinary margins or supporting dramatic price run ups for extended periods of time. It almost never happens. Eventually, the prices correct.

    The fact is that during the last three years, demand for oil has barely budged, while trading activity on the futures markets for oil has tripled. McDonald’s had a higher percentage increase in demand growth during the last quarter than oil has had in the last three years. If a typical company traded on the NYSE had the demand growth that oil had, that stock would be in the toilet.

    Between falling demand, cheating cartel members, and wildcatters, prices should decline. More to the point, when speculators finally have their dot.bomb and mortgage bubble-style moment, this bubble is going to crash, too.

    Speculators are trading on the greater fool theory. The price surge on Friday is a hint of how utterly irrational the market is at the moment. When fundamentals return to the market, prices will come down with them, it’s just a matter of when and of how much.

  • avatar

    George Soros says the current oil price curve reflects a classic bubble curve. He did not say how much higher oil would go but the indicators are that it would eventually fall hard like every other investment bubble.

    I don’t know squat about investment but I’m thinking Mr. Soros does.

  • avatar

    This is classic wishful thinking. Sure, the oil bubble may burst – after we suffer another great depression and WWIII is over.

    On the other hand, my pastor says that oil will cost only $10 a barrel when Jesus returns.

  • avatar

    Been thinkin’ this might be only a speculative bubble like the housing bubble, tech bubble, tulip mania, etc etc.

    Too, oil prices measured not in dollars but in something valuable like euros or gold haven’t gone up as fast either.

    But what about the worry factor (risk premium) of (1) going to war with Iran, (2) not going to war with Iran (3) Obama leaving Iraq and the whole world to itself, etc etc ?

    If World War Four is about to start and I’m an oil trader, no way am I letting a barrel go today for less than I think it’s gonna be worth tomorrow.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Shawn Tulley: “It’s even possible that, a few years hence, we could see a sustained period of plentiful oil supplies and low prices, meaning $50 or below.”

    Saying that something is possible is BS. Almost anything is possible. Showing why something is probable takes a bit more effort.

    There is a bubble in oil, but the long-term fundamentals don’t add up to sub-$50 oil. At least not for long. Demand (and SUV sales) would shoot up again if it went that low. The concensus of independent oil analysts is that Peak Oil will hit in a window of time centered on 2015. Unless the global economy goes into a prolonged recession, growth in demand will continue to outstrip supplies of (modest priced) oil.

  • avatar

    Price of commodities are auction prices – whatever someone is willing to bid. Cost of production has little relevance.

  • avatar

    Oil prices will not “tank”, but will have periods of correction in an upward trend. This is due to Peak Oil. Oil is a finite commodity that is mostly irreplaceable in its use as liquid fuel for transport. Biofuels which are much disparaged on this site to my dismay are one of the few mitigating alternatives.

    There is constantly growing oil demand as more and more people around the world acquire cars and aspire to the American type life style. There is not enough oil extracted to accommodate them. The price must rise to a point that demand is destroyed. This has been going on for the last 5 years with the poorest countries bearing the brunt of demand destruction.

    Now the demand destruction must get serious in the more wealthy countries. The Export Land Model shows how the supply of oil available for export falls faster than the total decline rate since oil exporting countries are fast growing due to oil wealth and only export what is left over after their own use.

    This means that the wealthy of the world are bidding for a more rapidly declining amount of oil available in the export market. The price must rise faster as the competition goes up to the very wealthiest countries.

    This is what is happening now. The era of cheap oil is over. It was the driving force of the 20th century that saw the rise of the automobile and all the associated developments.

    The 21st century is about Peak Oil and the decline of liquid fuel for transport. The implications are profound. The Export Land Model shows how the decline will happen faster than many think. This is big news and the auto industry along with those dependant on cars are not prepared or even aware it is happening.

  • avatar

    Cost of production has little relevance.

    It is relevant, because of how margins above the norm motivate suppliers to get into a business to take those margins for themselves.

    If it is possible to spend $10 producing something that can be sold for $135, you are bound to see suppliers make the effort to get it.

    Drilling and exploration have already been increasing. With supplies creeping up, demand falling and speculators falling all over themselves to make easy money, it’s a matter of time.

  • avatar
    Alex Rodriguez

    Just like I’ve been saying all along:

    The price of oil is completely disconnected from any fundamentals, it is all about the speculators talking the price up and playing the rules to drive the price.

    Friday is a perfect example. The fundamentals say the price should be falling, inventory reports show supplies to the hilt, and demand is falling year over year. The price starts to go down first few days last week. Then some analyst says oil “should” reach $150, add in a little seizing on the “bomb Iran” comments, and the price goes up $13 in one day. Why? No reason except to make money.

    We are in a bubble, just like housing, just like Enron, just like the tech boom. It’s all built on fantasy. It will come crashing down at some point. Maybe today was the start.

  • avatar

    Futures markets reward correct positions – whether prices go up or go down. If you believe oil prices will correct downward, you can by put contracts at any % reduction or contract date.

    If you bet against the market and it goes down, you’ll make just as much if you bet for it and it goes up.

  • avatar

    Christ, those who actually believe in peak oil have fully bought into the mainstream media nonsense. I remember hearing this exact same nonsense back in the 70s.

    Peak oil is a poorly thought-out theory by Hubbert (working for Shell), which is directly contradicted by the facts. There’s lots of this stuff out there. Furthermore, as oil prices go up, there is more incentive to continue to harvest what’s already in the ground, through better technology, better refining techniques, etc.

    Of course prices will go down. The question is — how much. Oil has always resorted to the $20/barrel mean. I don’t see why now anything should be different. There’s boatloads of the stuff out there — 140 years worth according to the CEO of Aramco ( Keep in mind that it is directly against his interest to say this — but it’s simply the truth.

    Also more here:

    Pricing is being driven primarily by three factors (

    1. The dollar is crap. Oil is priced in dollars. Basic math there.

    2. The commodities market becoming an investment vehicle, bringing in vast sums of money from hedge funds, index funds, etc.

    3. Speculation, fueled by 20x leverage.

    That still doesn’t make oil a good thing. It’s just that one needs to be dealing with the correct facts.

  • avatar

    mind you it would explain why GM appears to be so unconcerned.

  • avatar

    Carlos says: On the other hand, my pastor says that oil will cost only $10 a barrel when Jesus returns.

    That’s just about the scariest thing I’ve read this year.


  • avatar

    If you look at the 1970’s it was much worse and President Carter was very fond of predicting a lowered lifestyle. The economy was in shambles with crazy high unemployment numbers, sky high interest rates and expensive oil. Then Reagan was elected and in a couple years the economy boomed and oil prices started to drop. No matter who becomes president we will likely redo the late Seveties gloom and doom economy and if things become bad enough vote to live like free Americans again.

  • avatar

    ‘In response to my manifesto on The Truth About High Gas Prices, a couple of people close to me confidentially told me that they thought I was nuts for predicting sub-$80 per gallon oil “in the not too distant future.” ‘

    I, too, think that we will have sub-$80 per GALLON oil “in the not too distant future.”

    I know, I know, it’s supposed to read ‘sub-$80 per Barrel oil” but I just couldn’t resist pointing that out.

  • avatar

    The rise will last forever!

    You’d better get into real-estate now because if you don’t you won’t be able to afford a home in the future!

    Oil prices will go up up up!

    See a trend here? I do. Sure prices may go up, but I certainly don’t see a fundamental reason why they’re going up at the insane rate they are. Only thing I see is weak dollar and huge amounts of speculation. Both cannot last forever.

  • avatar

    Ain’t that the truth Jerome10.

  • avatar

    I’ve been reading some articles about growing algae capable of producing crude as good as the best light sweet. The test plant in North San Diego County goes online in a few months. I’m seeing various estimates of the cost per barrel ($45-50?) so I’m sure a lot of eyes are on this.

  • avatar

    I am experiencing dejavu in regard to these rapidly rising oil prices. It feels just like California in the summer of 2001 during our electricity crises. If you all recall, there was no crises. It was created by Enron manipulating the producers to reduce supply to California. In other words, market manipulation, not market forces.

    I understand that the falling US dollar and increased worldwide demand will cause oil to rise. But not this much this fast.

    These rising prices are also reducing demand overseas. Just because Chinese and Indians want to live like Americans do (or did) doesn’t mean they can afford it. Just as they almost get to the point where they can have a car and drive as much as they want, the price yanks it out of reach. So the claims of increased demand is bogus now that the prices are stamping out this demand.

    I’ve heard that the oil companies are having the oil tankers sit off shore, or take their sweet time getting over to the US. Every day a tanker full of oil sits off shore is another day where the cargo becomes more valuable. I’ve heard that they are now reaching the point where they are running out of tankers to store oil while waiting for the optimal point to sell it.

    Bush, being a lame duck prez, has zero incentive to try to do something about this.

    In the long run, I think this will be good. It will force us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. In the short run, we are being scammed just like in the bad old days of the robber railroad barons.

  • avatar

    These are getting as silly as Lutz’ various prognostications on behalf of his Klutzmobiles.

    Oil under USD100/bbl would be a blip on the radar before it rockets back into the stratosphere.

  • avatar

    It’s the same old story. It happened during WW2 (domestic oil prices rose) then bottomed out afterwards. In the 70’s prices rose dramatically, then bottomed out afterwards. Now, the prices are rising dramatically, to similar inflation-adjusted levels as the 70’s. Everything in the economy goes in cycles, and were in the middle of the rising cost part.

    The economy has a tendency to act like a thrown rock, or an airplane – what goes up must come down.

    I predict that in 5 years, gas prices will be about $1.00/litre, but with inflation added in, it’d be equivalent to maybe $.50/litre now.

  • avatar

    Demand is going up (down slightly in the USA but up in all other areas of the world). Price will not correct, the is no “bubble” but there will be volatility. Bubbles are not precipitated by high price, they are precipitated by a demand that evaporates… the two are different.

    Supply is maintaining steady and set to go down. Peak Oil does not say that we are running out of oil it says that we are running out of our ability to get the oil out of the ground. The Saudis would have a hard time increasing production even if they wanted to. New oil comes for tar sands and costs $40 per barrel.

    We now have expensive oil. Get used to it. The free lunch is over. Did we all think that the party to burn billions of barrels of oil in one century (oil that took millions of years to make from decaying organic matter.) would last forever?

  • avatar

    The recent price bubble is an anomaly that can only be explained one way. Consumption in this country was up only .34% in 2008. India and China’s demand has been a steady increase, not a massive spike.

    Speculation is the only explanation, the point that this article makes. We aren’t arguing that oil is a finite resource. We’re just saying that the price will go down.

    People respond more to emotional pleas than to dry economics lectures, and that’s why there’s a whole media cottage industry dedicated to peak oil.

    source: oil consumption in US graph.

  • avatar

    Folks – Few have mentioned the elephant in the room – China (or the rhino – India), with its seemingly unlimited and unsatiable demand for the juice that drives the industrial revolution. Many factors will come and go but this demand-side driver is with us for the long term (until China gets so fat and rich they decide to resurrect Ghengis Khan’s dream of world domination).

    No, my sense is that these high prices will become a fact of life not a momentary blip.

    To the chap who mentioned that Jesus at His Coming will usher in $10 gas – wrong my friend. His Kingdom will usher in a whole new world of coming and going, sans oil or any other such commodity.

  • avatar

    Pch101 :
    June 9th, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    The fact is that during the last three years, demand for oil has barely budged, while trading activity on the futures markets for oil has tripled. McDonald’s had a higher percentage increase in demand growth during the last quarter than oil has had in the last three years. If a typical company traded on the NYSE had the demand growth that oil had, that stock would be in the toilet.

    But McDonalds hamburgers are price elastic, while oil is price inelastic. That is, if you increase the price of Mickey D’s burgers, people will just go to freaking Burger King. If you double the price of oil, usage drops by 1%. Therefore, if there is even a slight supply/demand mismatch in oil, the price will skyrocket.

    Production has plateaued. The increase in demand has slowed, but that’s due to the huge price increases due to the flat production. Even though prices are through the roof, demand is still increasing, albeit slower than before.

    Also, keep in mind the figure that matters here is worldwide demand, not domestic demand alone. Domestic demand is flat or down, but that doesn’t matter one bit.

    Another problem is that many of the places that have had increased demand recent are in countries that subsidize the cost of gasoline (selling it for a set price throughout the country), so, until those governments stop doing that, they won’t respond properly to the pricing signals by reducing demand.

  • avatar

    There are legitimate arguments for peak oil. I tend to agree with some of them. But unfortunately, there also seems to be a passionate desire by some to pray to some peak oil god, and showing devotion to that god requires getting into a panic and ignoring some basic laws of economics.

    China and India are certainly factors over the long run, and their arrival on the global economic stage has set them up to be formidable consumers. But their demand growth is slowing down, too. Much of their consumption is due to producing export goods, so when our economy slows down, theirs does too. If their economy slows down, they use less oil.

    It is certainly possible that we will eventually run out of oil and that over the long run, prices will track above inflation. But that does not meant that today’s price movements are permanent, or that prices always go in one direction. It’s quite the opposite — sharp price increases of any product are almost never sustainable, ever.

    You might remember a few years ago that it seemed everybody and his brother was telling you that your house would not decline in value. “They don’t build more land!” “Demand is unstoppable — everyone needs a place to live!” Yep, prices were never going to fall.

    Of course, today, everybody knows that they do fall. The arguments that these oil prices are here to stay are very much like those. “They don’t build more land!” = “Supplies are fixed!”, while China and India have become the new “everyone needs a place to live.”

    Global demand growth is already slowing to a trickle. (There are more than 160 countries in the world, not everyone lives in China and India.) With a prolonged global recession, it could even decline, as it has in the past. New suppliers are filtering into the market, exploring and trying to produce; in time, they will be adding to those supplies.

    Again, prices don’t just march in one direction, and sharp increases like the ones we’ve seen never last for any product. What the CNN article talks about is not fanciful, but demonstrable economic theory — when profits are enormous, someone is going to try to get them, which means they add supply, while buyers begin to use less, which puts downward pressure on prices.

  • avatar

    But McDonalds hamburgers are price elastic, while oil is price inelastic.

    Our memories are short. One thing that the seventies were supposed to teach us that oil demand over the medium run is elastic. It just takes awhile to adjust to the price increases, so the response is not immediate.

    When oil prices run up, it takes several years for consumers to make substantial adjustments, because their infrastructure, lifestyles and business plans are built around the lower prices. But eventually, they do adjust, at which those previously tight supplies start looking like a glut.

    Supplies are not fixed, either. But like demand, it takes awhile for suppliers who are motivated to take those increasing prices to take them, because you can’t build an oil well overnight.

    But it is already happening, with increased wildcatting and exploration. Everyone and his brother wants to make money on this, so if you are a producer, the answer is to increase production.

    Some economic theory is bogus, but this stuff is really just human nature converted into a math formula. If a loaf of bread suddenly cost $40, you can bet that everyone and his sister would be opening up a bread stand outside of his house, and the flood of loaves would push the price back to a buck.

    The same thing happens with every good, including oil, but in the case of oil, the cycles take much longer. But the cycles are still there.

  • avatar
    Tommy Jefferson

    I guess it’s time to buy that Ford Expedition I’ve been wanting before everyone figures out high oil prices are an artificial anomaly that can’t last.

  • avatar

    I am with Peak-oil cult here. I don’t believe there is a reasonably fast cost-effective way to increase supply in the foreseeable future, possibly ever. Russian oil production is going down by official Russian estimates, so is the production from the North See, Mexico, Saudi Arabia. There is a pontential for modest increased production in Iraq, and the former Soviet republics (Kazachstan, Azerbajdian) but these will probably not do much more than cover the declines of the current large producers. There would be a possibility of significant increase in Canadian tar sands. They production is profitable at lot less than 100 dbb but only at the cost of turning Alberta into Sahara due to the devastating environmental effects. It may come to that eventually if there is nothing else but not just yet.

    That leaves us with the demand and there are 2 main components; the developed markets and the rest.

    The demand will slow in the developed world as once again we will be forced to become much more efficient in our energy use just like in the seventies and eighties but it will take time. So the developed world will stop its demand growth but not decrease it unless there is a severe economic crises which might well happen.

    I think the key is what happens to the booming Asian economies. Everybody just assumes that they may slow down a bit but will still grow faster than anybody else and their thirst for oil will not subside at all. But I have never seen a convincing argument for this. Perhaps their economies will collapse.

  • avatar

    Hopefully new legislation to require a 50% instead of a 5-7% collateral for buying oil will stop the speculation. The biggest investors in oil are the ones make prognostications of $150/bar oil.

    While the investement banks are getting rich they are doing alot of harm to the lower and middle classes of America.

    The general elections can’t come soon enough.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    It is NOT the production cost that defines the price of oil when you are supply constrained.

    If you are demand-constrained, yes, your production cost of the marginal barrel defines the price, as you pull the highest-cost production off the market when it is not economically viable.

    But we are entering a supply-constrained regigm: Once you are supply constrained rather than demand-constrained on the market clearing, the equilibrium point is the supply v demand curve irrespecitive of the cost of production.

    Additionally, in MOST cases of the market, futures prices are LESS than spot prices. When it is the other way (“Contango”) it is usually a sign of, uhh, interesting features ahead.

  • avatar

    Speculators, in the medium to long term, can never substain a price higher than the market would bear otherwise, because other speculators would simply start to bet the other way (short oil). They can cause short term peaks, but that’s all.

  • avatar

    These “oil will be ok” entries at TTAC are beginning to sound as wise as Lutz’ Klutzian prognostications on behalf of GM! :-)

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    The other factor is there doesn’t appear to be much hording….

    Speculation can have a huge effect on futures prices, but spot prices reflect the current value.

    Speculation CAN affect spot prices, but this requires either large storage or cut production (store the oil in the ground). There are very few signs of either of these occuring so far.

  • avatar

    Speculators, in the medium to long term, can never sustain a price higher than the market would bear otherwise, because other speculators would simply start to bet the other way (short oil). They can cause short term peaks, but that’s all.

    As we saw from the dot.bomb craze and the mortgage bubble, speculators can and do feed medium-term price increases for periods of a few years that are ultimately unsustainable. When the wave is in full force, it just doesn’t fade out overnight.

    When you look at the oil markets, the only component of it that has skyrocketed is the number of futures contracts. While supplies can’t be described as being at a glut level, they are adequate to meet demand. If there was genuine scarcity, you would know it, because it would be rationed.

    The whole thing has descended into market madness. For example, I saw a “news” report (I use the term loosely here) on NBC claiming that oil prices were high because of supply constraints expected in 2012.

    Now, I might have forgotten all of the econ that I studied, but as I recall, current prices of products are not impacted by demand projections for four years hence. (I expect to buy an iPod today for $10, because of the MP3 players that will have hit the market by 2012.)

    After being told that they can’t build more land(!), we’ve just seen US home prices fall back to their price point of four years ago. The supply arguments made in defense of those run ups are very much the same as what we are hearing now for oil.

    Prices are ultimately demand driven. Steep prices increases attract suppliers and reduce demand, simultaneously, so short-term bursts end up being tempered. If anyone can come with an example of a noteworthy exception, I’d be glad to hear it.

  • avatar

    If oil is going towards a bubble, how come the prices were already rising before the subprime crisis and the dollar thing? (The question posed by an oil person in response to calls that oil is indeed a bubble)

    97escort : I don’t buy into a firm prediction on when peak oil will occur–most likely, it will happen, and we won’t notice until retrospect. Utah alone sits on 80bn barrels of oil shale and once easy oil is gone, it’s going to move to sources like that. As far as Mexico’s oil production, their issue is not only a growing rate of consumption, but also the lack of investment into exploration and infrastructure. It’s possible they may discover more fields, though at higher cost.

  • avatar

    To paraphrase Lutz, peak oil is a crock of shit, just like manmade global warming (not global warming in general – it’s definitely happening, it’s just we’re not to blame.)

  • avatar

    A few comments here really have me wondering. Lutz never said peak oil is a crock of shit, by the way. He was referring to global warming.

    The head of Gazprom, one of the world’s largest oil companies, sees oil at USD 250 in the foreseeable future. But what does he know, compared to the illuminati in this thread? :-)

  • avatar

    The head of Gazprom, one of the world’s largest oil companies, sees oil at USD 250 in the foreseeable future. But what does he know, compared to the illuminati in this thread?

    The article notes that his position is not a commonly held view.

    And call me crazy, but the head of an publicly traded oil company might just benefit from encouraging speculators to feel bullish about his company’s future prospects and its stock.

    On the other side, George Soros has gone on record as saying that he believes that this is a bubble. But maybe he is holding short positions and trying to help his portfolio, too.

  • avatar

    The problem with this logic of CNN is that crude oil is not an ordinary commodity. In normal case if the price of production and the sale price has a huge gap, production will rise phenomenally, and the price of the commodity will be pulled down. In case of crude oil, as we all know, the source is limited, Saudi cannot double or triple its production even their production cost is only $4 which is sold at more than $100. Please see article 11 on our website for the actual statistics about the crude oil price.

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