For Oil Market Data, You Don’t Need Slippery Sources

April 22, 2020

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The price of oil affects many environmental issues, so tracking pricing data can help reporters understand the economic trends shaping Big Oil. Above, oil storage tanks at the Houston Port. Photo: Reinhard Link, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Reporter’s Toolbox: For Oil Market Data, You Don’t Need Slippery Sources

By Joseph A. Davis

What’s that? You say you are an environmental journalist. So why on Earth would you want to learn about the oil market? 

Short answer: because it profoundly affects many of the key issues we cover on the environment beat.

Forget the technical stuff. It’s all about the price of oil

The price of oil affects whether pipelines get built, whether shale gets fracked, whether plastics get manufactured, whether sage grouse can strut, whether caribou in ANWR can calve, whether pipelines get built, whether smog burns your eyes, whether toxic emissions give people cancer or asthma, whether groundwater is usable and …  yes, whether taxpayers get bilked and government gets corrupted.

This Reporter’s Toolbox may help you get more and better data and information about the oil market — the price of oil, yes, but also the price trend, the economic and geopolitical pressures that shape it, and the mechanics of a huge and complex world trading system. 

We will get into the think-tank stuff in the related Issue Backgrounder that accompanies this Toolbox.


Tracking the price of oil

You will find the price of oil by looking at the real-time ticker on the world’s big commodity exchanges. For now, stick with NYMEX, the New York Mercantile Exchange. But to get the live ticker from NYMEX directly, you have to pay a lot. 

Other media carry the data in close to real time. Some places you can get updated numbers online are on the business pages of the New York Times, at Bloomberg, Reuters and MarketWatch.

Oil isn’t just oil. What is traded on the markets are particular benchmark grades of crude which vary in utility, desirability, location and, therefore, price:

  • West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, is light sweet (low-sulphur) and comes from the Permian Basin. 
  • Brent crude is also light (low-density) and sweet, and comes from under the North Sea. 
  • Light sweet crude is easiest to refine into gasoline. 

There are other grades of crude, and various products traded separately.

If you are buying oil right now, you will be buying it at the “spot price.” 

But more likely you will be buying or selling oil futures, contracts to accept or deliver a certain amount (typically 1,000 U.S. barrels) of a certain grade of oil at a specific location and month in the future. 

Most oil trading centers on futures, because of how oil use is planned for and because it offers a chance to bet on longer-term price trends.


Good energy news and information sources

To understand oil (and gas and petroleum product) markets, it is wise to rely on good journalists and news outlets that specialize in covering these markets. Knowing the better ones will save you the grief of being misled by the bad ones. 

Toolbox is sad to report that there is some “spin” to be found in much energy journalism, whether for political motives or financial ones. Often, the best are simply trying to provide “market intelligence,” which can be just numbers.

No energy news outlet is perfect. But here are a few Toolbox trusts more to be reliable and objective: 

  • Reuters: This international news service specializes in business and energy news. Some of their energy news is in this vertical. Much Reuters content is free and open source.
  • Platts: The S&P Global Platts empire spans a vast range of energy topics, but the oil market is at the heart of it. Much of their content is sold to subscribers, but a fair bit is free and open. Start here for oil stuff.
  • Bloomberg: The Bloomberg news empire is also vast and complex, but specializes in a business audience and is reliable on energy topics. Much, not all, of its content is for-pay. But you can get a lot from media that carry it second-hand. Some handy access points are Bloomberg Environment and Bloomberg Green, or this energy vertical.
  • Wall Street Journal: If you stay on the news side, this standby is pretty solid for energy news. But the paywall is solid, too. Start here.
  • E&E News: This large, venerable newsroom is impeccable and incisive, and specializes in energy among other topics. A portion of its content is open source. Start here and here.
  • U.S. Energy Information Administration: Not a media outlet, this federal agency offers comprehensive, granular, unbiased numerical data on all energy markets. For oil markets, start here.
  • International Energy Agency: Also not a media outlet, this autonomous (non-U.N.) Paris-based NGO publishes the excellent monthly Oil Market Report


Traders, journalists talk oil on Twitter

OK, all that bad stuff they say about Twitter is true. Don’t say Toolbox didn’t warn you. But if you want to hang out with oil market pros, it’s a good place to start. 

Be skeptical and confirm everything (that goes for other sources, too). The upside of Twitter is that it is lightning-fast, open and organizes itself in communities of interest. 

So, are you on Oil Twitter? The virtual water cooler for oil traders and oil journalists is the hashtag #OOTT (Organization of Oil Trading Tweeters). You will not understand half of what they are saying. They will use oil-trader lingo like “contango” and “backwardation.” Just ignore this, stay quiet and listen.

It is a help to know the Twitter handles of the actually solid or interesting or plugged-in oil tweeps. Among our favorites (or just follow them by handle):

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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