If there’s one thing that has captured the market’s fascination recently, it has to be the dramatic rise and fall of crude oil. Since bottoming out during the Great Recession, prices for oil have risen substantially—thanks to the fracking and deepwater drilling boom—only to crater once again. That’s made for plenty of headlines and media coverage.
But here’s the thing. All of that fascination with oil has centered on the commodity’s two biggest benchmarks: Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI). That’s understandable, as the two benchmarks are what both Europe and the United States use for oil prices. However, they are not the only types of crude.
Depending on where it’s produced, crude oil is completely different and ranges in density from very thin and lightweight to extremely thick and almost solid in nature. As such, there are more than 195 different benchmark pricing schemes for crude oil. And while investors probably don’t need to worry about Abu Bukhoosh or Zuata Sweet grades, there are some that are almost equally as important as Brent and WTI.
Mexican Maya Crude
Mexico has long been an oil producer through its state-owned energy company PEMEX. And while its reserves have been declining—thanks to a lack of technology—it’s still one of the major production regions in the world.
Produced as a blend of crude oils from the Cantarell—one of the world’s most prolific oil fields—and Ku Maloob Zaap oil fields, Mayan Crude Oil is what put Mexico on the map as a major oil exporter back in the 1980s. It’s a heavy and sour crude oil blend – meaning it has a high percentage of sulfur impurities. That makes it hard to refine. As such, Mexican Mayan crude oil has become a favorite import of the various refineries dotting the Gulf Coast of the United States.
As a blend of crude oil, pricing for Mexican Maya crude oil is as done as a blended scheme. The Mayan price is determined by taking 40% of WTI, 40% of No. 6 sulfur fuel oil, 10% of Brent and 10% of Light Louisiana Sweet crude. A constant that is set by PEMEX is added or subtracted from that value to determine the selling price of Mayan Crude. The constant is changed by Pemex on the first of the month [see also 25 Ways To Invest In Crude Oil].
For investors, buying and selling Mayan crude is pretty much off limits as PEMEX basically sells direct to the various refiners and end-users of the oil. That means if you want to play the benchmark, you either need to buy shares of an oil service firm that deals with the state-owned firm or one of the refiners like Valero (VLO) or Exxon (XOM), which use Mayan crude and can profit from the spread.
Western Canadian Select Crude Oil (WCS)
As Mexican production has faltered, Canadian production continues to rise alongside of its American shale counterparts. Given that, Western Canadian Select (WCS) is quickly becoming a major crude oil benchmark in its own right.
WCS was launched at the end of 2004 as a new heavy oil pricing metric by Cenovus (CVE) Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNQ), Suncor (SU) and Talisman Energy (TLM), in order to capitalize on rising oil sands production in Canada. The benchmark is a sour crude- which is made up of a blend of mostly bitumen (oil sands) as well as sweet synthetic, condensate and 25 other varieties of Canadian heavy oil. WCS is blended and priced in a Husky blending terminal in Hardisty, Alberta Canada. The condensate diluent is added to allow the oil sands bitumen to flow through pipelines.
Oil sands crude isn’t produced like traditional oil, but is mined through various techniques—including surface mining, steam-injection and vapor extraction—to remove the oil deposits from the soil. While some environmentalists have complained about the damage done by oil sands’ mining, production of bitumen continues to steadily rise across Alberta.
As a sour crude, much of WCS production flows downwards towards refineries in the Gulf. For investors looking to play WCS crude oil, a variety of futures and option contracts do exist on the NYMEX exchange. Each contract represents 1,000 barrels of WCS and are priced in U.S. dollars. Historically, WCS crude has traded at a discount to WTI and Brent [see also Crude Oil Guide: Brent Vs. WTI, What’s The Difference?].
Dubai Fateh Crude Oil
While everyone knows that the Middle East is a major source of crude oil production, what they might not know is that the bulk of that oil isn’t freely “traded.” Many of its top producers still use other benchmarks and sell directly to end users. The oil rich United Arab Emirates was the first nation in the region to adopt free market controls and allow investors and speculators to bet directly on the price movements of its production.
As such, Dubai Crude Oil—also known as Fateh—has quickly become a major benchmark for oil traders. In fact, other Middle Eastern producers now use Fateh crude as a pricing standard for export shipments to Asia [see also How Crude Oil Traders Manipulate The Market].
Fateh is a light sour crude oil, making it perfect for refining. However, Dubai’s only refinery uses condensate as its feedstock, meaning almost all of Dubai’s oil production is scheduled for export. That makes Fateh crude one of the only oil varieties available for immediate delivery.
Given this, futures and option contracts traded on both the NYMEX and the newly minted Dubai Mercantile Exchange are only limited to one or two months forward. And as one of the Middle East’s only “freely-traded” contracts, volume for Fateh crude oil futures is rather robust. Investors wishing to dabble in the pricing metric shouldn’t have any issues trading the crude oil type.
Malaysian Tapis Crude Oil
When investors think oil producing powerhouses, Malaysia doesn’t usually come to mind. However, the tiny nation’s state-owned producer PETRONAS is a giant and the Asian nation features a wide range of reserves and crude oil types. The best known and most widely traded is its Tapis crude oil.
Tapis crude is produced offshore in the South China Sea on the eastern peninsular of Malaysia. The field is the nation’s largest offshore field and was first discovered in 1969. Production started in 1978 and the field has continually produced crude oil in that time. International energy giant Exxon owns about 30% of the field [see also Company Profile: Exxon Mobil].
Tapis is very light and very sweet. That’s helped it become one of Asia’s top demanded crude oils. Essentially, the combo of those two things allows refiners to create a greater amount of gasoline without increased investments. Even the light oils from the Middle East are “sour” and contain a heavier ratio of sulfur in their mix. Given this position, Tapis has traditionally commanded a premium in the marketplace in terms of pricing.
As for that pricing, Tapis futures are traded in Singapore – Asia’s financial hub. However, PETRONAS has floated the idea of using a new benchmark system of blended Asian crude oil varieties for its pricing – of which Tapis will be a major contributor. All in all, Malaysia’s crude oil benchmark will still be a big part of the region’s crude oil future.
OPEC Reference Basket
All of the talk about crude oil comes down to one thing; OPEC not cutting production and causing the fall in prices. Created in 1960 as a way to have some sort of common policy for the production and sale of oil among its members, the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) features a wide range of nations. That creates some interesting dynamics when it comes to pricing crude oil. After all, Bonny Light from Nigeria is completely different than Qatar Marine crude oil.
With this said, OPEC has created a reference basket that it uses in pricing policies. While the ORB isn’t available to investors, it is used as a benchmark crude oil on which both Brent and WTI are judged [see also The Different Types of Brent Oil Futures Compared].
The basket of crude oils was updated in 2005 and now includes regional benchmarks from 12 of its members. Historically, the ORB has had a high sulfur content and has traded at a discount to Brent and WTI prices. However, given OPEC’s ability to change its policy on a dime, the ORB has and can fluctuate quite rapidly over a short period of time. That can cause the other world benchmarks of crude oil to move equally as rapidly.
While investors can’t own it directly, this rapid shift in policies can make the ORB an important benchmark to watch when it comes to buying and selling other crude oil futures.
The Bottom Line
As the two biggest benchmarks, WTI and Brent get all the press. However, as shown above, there is plenty of variety in the fossil fuel space. Crude oil is a very local and independent commodity. In fact, there are more than 195 different varietals of oil. While you don’t have to know them all, the previous five are just some of the major benchmarks investors should be familiar with.
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