Pricing Differences Among Various Types of Crude Oil
According to The International Crude Oil Market Handbook, 2004,1 published by the Energy Intelligence Group, there are about 161 different internationally traded crude oils. They vary in terms of characteristics, quality, and market penetration. Two crude oils which are either traded themselves or whose prices are reflected in other types of crude oil include West Texas Intermediate and Brent. Comparing these two crude oils with EIA's Imported Refiner Acquisition Cost (IRAC), the OPEC Basket, and NYMEX futures is important to understand the differences among the various types of crude oil that are often referred to in the press and by analysts. Generally, differences in the prices of these various crude oils are related to quality differences, but other factors can also influence the price relationships between each other.
West Texas Intermediate
West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil is of very high quality and is excellent for refining a larger portion of gasoline. Its API gravity is 39.6 degrees (making it a “light” crude oil), and it contains only about 0.24 percent of sulfur (making a “sweet” crude oil). This combination of characteristics, combined with its location, makes it an ideal crude oil to be refined in the United States, the largest gasoline consuming country in the world. Most WTI crude oil gets refined in the Midwest region of the country, with some more refined within the Gulf Coast region. Although the production of WTI crude oil is on the decline, it still is the major benchmark of crude oil in the Americas. WTI is generally priced at about a $5 to $6 per-barrel premium to the OPEC Basket price and about $1 to $2 per-barrel premium to Brent, although on a daily basis the pricing relationships between these can vary greatly.
Brent Blend is actually a combination of crude oil from 15 different oil fields in the Brent and Ninian systems located in the North Sea. Its API gravity is 38.3 degrees (making it a “light” crude oil, but not quite as “light” as WTI), while it contains about 0.37 percent of sulfur (making it a “sweet” crude oil, but again slightly less “sweet” than WTI). Brent blend is ideal for making gasoline and middle distillates, both of which are consumed in large quantities in Northwest Europe, where Brent blend crude oil is typically refined. However, if the arbitrage between Brent and other crude oils, including WTI, is favorable for export, Brent has been known to be refined in the United States (typically the East Coast or the Gulf Coast) or the Mediterranean region. Brent blend, like WTI, production is also on the decline, but it remains the major benchmark for other crude oils in Europe or Africa. For example, prices for other crude oils in these two continents are often priced as a differential to Brent, i.e., Brent minus $0.50. Brent blend is generally priced at about a $4 per-barrel premium to the OPEC Basket price or about a $1 to $2 per-barrel discount to WTI, although on a daily basis the pricing relationships can vary greatly.
The NYMEX futures price for crude oil, which is reported in almost every major newspaper in the United States, represents (on a per-barrel basis) the market-determined value of a futures contract to either buy or sell 1,000 barrels of WTI or some other light, sweet crude oil at a specified time. Relatively few NYMEX crude oil contracts are actually executed for physical delivery. The NYMEX market, however, provides important price information to buyers and sellers of crude oil in the United States (and around the world), making WTI the benchmark for many different crude oils, especially in the Americas. Typically, the NYMEX futures prices tracks within pennies of the WTI spot price described above, although since the NYMEX futures contract for a given month expires 3 days before WTI spot trading for the same month ceases, there may be a few days in which the difference between the NYMEX futures price and the WTI spot price widens noticeably.
OPEC Basket Price
For a discussion of crude oil pricing in general, and of the OPEC Basket price in particular, see EIA's OPEC Revenues Fact Sheet. OPEC collects pricing data on a "basket" of seven crude oils, including: Algeria's Saharan Blend, Indonesia's Minas, Nigeria's Bonny Light, Saudi Arabia's Arab Light, Dubai's Fateh, Venezuela's Tia Juana Light, and Mexico's Isthmus (a non-OPEC crude oil). OPEC uses the price of this basket to monitor world oil market conditions. As mentioned above, because WTI crude oil is a very light, sweet (low sulfur content) crude, it is generally more expensive than the OPEC basket, which is an average of light sweet crude oils such as Algeria's Saharan Blend and heavier sour crude oils (with high sulfur content) such as Dubai's Fateh. Brent is also lighter, sweeter, and more expensive than the OPEC basket, although less so than WTI.
Imported Refiner Acquisition Cost
The Imported Refiner Acquisition Cost (IRAC) is a volume-weighted average price of all crude oils imported into the United States over a specified period. Because the United States imports more types of crude oil than any other country, it may represent the truest “world oil price” among all published crude oil prices. The IRAC is also usually similar to the OPEC Basket price, so it too is typically about $6 to $8 per barrel less than the WTI spot price and about $5 to $6 per barrel less than the Brent price. However, because the IRAC is not reported by EIA until nearly 2 months after the end of the month in question, i.e., the August IRAC average price would be reported sometime in late October, the IRAC is not a particularly timely measure of a “world oil price”. Although EIA is generally the only organization that uses the IRAC, it is used by EIA as the “world oil price” in all of its forecast publications, including the Short-Term Energy Outlook, released monthly, as well as the Annual Energy Outlook and International Energy Outlook, both of which are released annually and provide an annual forecast looking out approximately 20 years in the future.
1Energy Intelligence Group, The International Crude Oil Market Handbook, 2004, pp. E1, E287 and E313.