How to Trade Oil

Why is Oil Valuable?

Before the Industrial Revolution, agricultural staples like corn and wheat ruled the commodities market. Today, however, crude oil and its derivatives are the most actively traded commodities in the world. That’s not surprising, considering oil touches just about every aspect of the global economy, in terms of consumer goods themselves as well as their production and transportation.

Here’s a look at the basics of investing in oil and the various oil trading opportunities.

If you think of oil mainly as fuel to power cars, trains, jets, and ships, you’re only seeing a tiny piece of the puzzle. Oil is a major component in the manufacture of plastics, synthetic textiles (acrylic, nylon, spandex, polyester), fertilizer, computers, cosmetics, and even steel. In fact, less than half of a 42-gallon barrel of oil actually goes to fuels production; the rest is used to make consumer goods. It’s estimated that the average American uses about three gallons of petroleum products per day.

How Much Oil is Used Per Day?

What Are the Different Types of Oil?

Although the market for oil is global, oil trading has clustered around several primary regions. The crude oil in each of these regions has slightly different characteristics, typically referred to in terms of viscosity (light versus heavy) and sulfur content (sweet versus sour).

Each of the major trading regions has established benchmarks to track price movements in oil commodities:

  1. West Texas Intermediate (WTI), which is a light sweet crude oil, with gravity of around 40 on the American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity scale and low sulfur content.
  2. Brent Crude is a light sweet crude oil from the North Sea. Its gravity is similar to WTI, but its sulfur content is slightly higher. From an oil investing point of view, it’s closest in quality to WTI.
  3. Dubai Crude, also known as Fateh, is denser (heavier) than both WTI and Brent and has a higher sulfur content, making it a sour crude. It’s useful in oil trading as a benchmark for oil shipments in the Middle East.
  4. OPEC Reference Basket is the weighted average of the mix of crudes produced in the OPEC region. It is heavier than both WTI and Brent.
  5. Bonny Light is a light sweet crude from Nigeria that’s useful as a benchmark for African oil. Its properties are similar to WTI and Brent, and in fact, demand for Bonny Light is primarily driven by European and American oil refineries.
  6. Urals is a heavy sour crude representative of Russia’s oil exports.

West Texas Intermediate (WTI)

A light sweet crude oil, with gravity of around 40 on the American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity scale and low sulfur content.

Brent Crude

A light sweet crude oil from the North Sea. Its gravity is similar to WTI, but its sulfur content is slightly higher. From an oil investing point of view, it’s closest in quality to WTI.

Dubai Crude

Also known as Fateh, is denser (heavier) than both WTI and Brent and has a higher sulfur content, making it a sour crude. It’s useful in oil trading as a benchmark for oil shipments in the Middle East.

OPEC Reference Basket

The weighted average of the mix of crudes produced in the OPEC region. It is heavier than both WTI and Brent.

Bonny Light

A light sweet crude from Nigeria that’s useful as a benchmark for African oil. Its properties are similar to WTI and Brent, and in fact, demand for Bonny Light is primarily driven by European and American oil refineries.


A heavy sour crude representative of Russia’s oil exports.

oil rig

Deepwater drilling is a common way to extract oil from under the ocean. There are There are approximately 3400 deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone. Image via Pixabay.


Oil Price: What Price is Oil Trading At?

Canadian Crude Index

Brent Crude

West Texas Intermediate

What Affects The Price of Oil?

In financial terms, oil is a “fungible” commodity, which means that specific grades of oil are identical for oil trading purposes, regardless of where they were produced. For example, a contract for 1,000 barrels of WTI crude will be exactly the same product whether the oil was extracted in Texas or North Dakota.

As with all commodities, supply and demand play a major role in oil pricing, although the global pool of oil and the ease with which oil moves around the world levels some of natural price pressures of supply and demand. It also tends to somewhat limit the influence of one particular producer or other in the global market.

Dubai oil wealth

Oil reserves in the Middle East have enabled countries like UAE to rapidly build infrastructure and invest in a future after oil. Image via Pixabay.

In addition, new resources have come online, specifically Canadian oil sands and U.S. shale oil, which add to the global supply, exerting downward force on oil prices in times of heavy demand. However, extraction costs for these resources mean these oils are only competitive in a lower supply and therefore higher price environment.

That said, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts growing global demand buoyed by an increasing world population, increased energy consumption in developing countries, and growth in the road transportation, petrochemical, and aviation industries. Even though OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries are reducing their road transportation oil consumption on a per-vehicle basis, the growing automobile fleet in developing countries far outpaces those minor reductions.

A (Brief) History of Oil

Please use the arrows below to scroll through the slides.

Early History

Early History

Oil has had many uses throughout human history, with the first references appearing in the ancient World. Accounts by Herodotus state that asphalt was used in the construction of Babylon. The earliest known examples of oil wells were constructed in China in 347 AD. Oil was used for heating in asia and pitch was often used in warfare in medieval Europe and the middle east. The first oil and well refinery was constructed during 1745 in Ukhta during the reign of Empress Elizabeth of Russia.

19th Century: Kerosene Discovered

19th Century: Kerosene Discovered

The origins of the modern oil industry can be found in the discovery of Kerosene. Kerosene had been used in China as early as 1500 BCE however it did not see widespread use until the 19th century. The first breakthrough came in 1846 when Canadian Geologist Abraham Gesner demonstrated that Kerosene could be extracted from coal. Then in 1851 Samuel Martin Kier began selling lamp oil distilled from crude oil to local miners. These oil lamps rapidly began to replace whale oil lamps and Kier is widely regarded as the grandfather of the modern American oil industry.

1859: Drake Well Founded

1859: Drake Well Founded

Many consider Drake Well founded near Titusville, Pennsylvania to be the first commercial oil well. There are a number of other wells in Poland and America that can lay claim to this title however Drake well was the first to attract a significant wave of investment in oil drilling, refining and marketing. The success of the Drake Well led to a boom in in oil drilling in the appalachian basin and marked the beginning of the modern oil industry in the United States. The appalachian basin continued to be the United States’ leading oil producer until 1904.

1865: Foundation Of Standard Oil

1865: Foundation Of Standard Oil

John D Rockefeller became the first “oil baron” when he founded standard oil in 1865.  Standard oil began buying up rival refineries and in 1882 formed the Standard Oil Trust, which controlled 90% of the American Oil Market. In 1890 the US congress passed the Sherman Antitrust act, standard oil was broken up under this act before finally being fully dismantled in 1911.  Their successor company was ExxonMobil. Together with Shell (founded 1907) and BP (founded 1909)  Exxonmobil is considered one of the original trio of “supermajors”.

1896: First offshore Oil Well

1896: First offshore Oil Well

In 1896 Henry L. Williams constructed the World’s first offshore oil well. The well consisted of a standard cable-tool rig attached to the end of a 300 foot (91.44 meters) pier into the pacific. By 1897 the well was producing its first oil. This discovery led to the construction of 14 more piers and over 400 wells within the next five years. Maritime oil deposits have been an important aspect of oil exploitation ever since.

1901: Discovery of The Spindletop Field

1901: Discovery of The Spindletop Field

The discovery of oil at the Spindletop Field is generally considered to mark the moment that America entered the oil age. On January 1st 1901 Captain Anthony F Lucas struck oil, causing the largest ‘gusher’ that the World had ever seen. The “Lucas Gusher” spewed out 100,000 of barrels of oil a day and took nine days to get under control. The discovery of such large oil fields led to the foundation of a number of oil companies and helped to propel the American oil industry into a position of market dominance.

1908: William D’arcy finds oil in Iran

1908: William D’arcy finds oil in Iran

In 1901 William D’arcy obtained a license to prospect for Oil in Persia (Modern Day Iran). For many years D’arcy’s expedition amounted to nothing. That all changed on May 26th 1908 D’arcy struck oil in the remote site of Masjid-i-Suleiman. This find was followed by the discovery of other significant oil reserves in the Middle East, one of the most important being the discovery of the Saudi Arabian oil fields in 1938.

1938: First freestand offshore well

1938: First freestand offshore well

The first offshore oil well, Superior-pure State No.1, was constructed by a partnership of the Pure Oil Company and Superior Oil Company. A 320 by 180 foot (97 by 55 Meter) wooden platform was constructed in 14 feet (4 meters) of water in the Gulf of Mexico, a mile (1.6 KM) offshore from Creole Louisiana. The platform was successful until it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1940. The rig was quickly rebuilt and marked the beginning of the lucrative offshore drilling industry.

1951: Iranian oil industry is nationalized

1951: Iranian oil industry is nationalized

In 1951 decades of discontent caused by the actions of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) had led to the Iranian Prime Minister Dr Mossadegh to abandon all cooperation with AIOC and move to nationalise the Iranian oil industry. This eventually led to Mossadegh’s downfall. In 1953 he was imprisoned in a coup and replaced with a Western leaning Prime Minister. As a result of the coup the Iranian Oil Participants (IOP) consortium was formed. The IOP founding members of the IOP would later become known as the “seven sisters” and controlled 80% of the World’s oil supply until the Oil Crisis of 1973.

1960: OPEC Founded

1960: OPEC Founded

In 1960 a the governments of Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran founded the organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The organisation allowed these nations to collectively bargin with independent oil companies for conessions, as well as set production limits and control the supply and price of oil. OPEC represents a powerful economic and political force in the modern world, with its members controlling approximetly 80% of the World’s oil supply.

1961: First semi-submersible

1961: First semi-submersible

The First semi-submersible rig was created by accident. Blue Water Drilling Company operated four rigs in the Mexican Gulf. The pontoons that held the rig up were not sufficiently buoyant to support it. The rig was towed between locations with the draught (water-level) resting mid-way between the bottom of the desk and the top of the pontoons. It was observed that the platform was very stable at this draught. This eventually led to the creation of a purpose built semi-submersible platform in 1963 giving the offshore oil industry a more versatile drilling platform. Together with drillships semi-submersibles have allowed oil companies to exploit deepwater deposits.

1973: Oil Crisis

1973: Oil Crisis

American involvement in the Yom Kippur War against Israel led to OPEC issuing an oil Embargo. This embargo was targeted at countries that OPEC members perceived as supporting the Israeli war effort. The economic impacts were sharp and the price of oil rose from $3 a barrell up to $12 a barrell by the end of the crisis in 1974. The embargo demonstrated the economic strength of OPEC for the first time and was the first of a number of major shifts in oil prices caused by OPEC.

1997: Slickwater fracking used for the first time

1997: Slickwater fracking used for the first time

Despite existing since since the American Civil War in the form of “exploding torpedoes” fracking as we understand it today did not see widespread use until the 1990s. In 1997 Nick Steinsberger, an engineer for Mitchell energy, pioneered the slickwater fracturing technique. This technique uses more water and a higher pump method than previous methods. Slickwater fracking proved to be hugely profitable and helped to kickstart the North American shale gas revolution. Hydraulic fracking is now used in countries all across the World.

2008: Oil hits $100 a barrel for the first time

2008: Oil hits $100 a barrel for the first time

On the 2nd of January 2008 the price of oil hit $100 per barrel for the first time in history. This was driven by increased demand from emerging economies and difficulty with finding new fields to exploit. While it didn’t surpass the inflation adjusted high of $101 in April 1980 in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution it still marks a historic moment in the history of oil.

2010: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

2010: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, also known as the BP oil spill, is one of the most well known offshore oil spills in recent memory. On April 20 2010 there was an explosion that killed 11 workers. The explosion triggered an oil leak. A number of failed efforts were made to plug the leak. The leak was finally plugged 87 days later by digging relief wells. The leak is widely considered the largest maritime oil spill in history, with an equivalent of 4.9 million barrels of oil released into the ocean. In 2015 BP agreed to pay a record breaking $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in history.

2017: Venezuela announces the first oil backed cryptocurrency

2017: Venezuela announces the first oil backed cryptocurrency

On the 3rd of December 2017 Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro announced the creation of the Petro, the World’s first cryptocurrency to be backed by oil reserves. Unlike most other cryptocurrencies the value of the Petro is backed by Venezuela’s copious oil, mineral, gold and diamond reserves. Maduro hoped to use the currency to acquire new avenues of international funding for Venezuela’s beleaguered economy and circumvent American financial sanctions.

Which Countries Produce the Most Oil?

Map showing biggest oil producer

Top 10 Oil Producing Countries

RankCountryFlagOil Production (Barrels per day)
#2Saudi ArabiaFlag of Saudi Arabia10,460,000
#4IraqFlag of Iraq4,450,000
#5IranFlag of Iran3,990,000
#7CanadaFlag of Canada3,660,000
#8UAEFlag of UAE3,100,000
#9KuwaitFlag of Kuwait2,900,000
#10BrazilFlag of Brazil2,500,000

Top 10 Countries by Oil Reserves

RankCountryFlagProven Reserves (millions of barrels)
#1VenezuelaFlag of Venezuela316,000
#2Saudi ArabiaFlag of Saudi Arabia266,000
#3CanadaFlag of Canada170,000
#4IranFlag of Iran159,000
#6KuwaitFlag of Kuwait102,000
#7UAEFlag of UAE98,000
#9LibyaFlag of Libya48,000

What About Shale Oil?

In 2016, an estimate by the World Energy Congress set total world resources of oil shale at a little over 6 trillion barrels. It is hard to know whether that is a big number without some context so to give you some idea the world’s other proven oil reserves are estimated to be 1.7 trillion barrels.

You may not have heard of the term shale oil but chances are you’ve heard about fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) which is the process used to obtain shale oil. It gets a lot of bad press but like it or not, shale oil is a key part of our energy supply chain now and looks set to grow in importance as other reserves are depleted.

Here’s a video that explains fracking:

Where in the World is Shale Oil Found?

shale oil rich nations

Top 10 Shale Oil Rich Nations

RankCountryFlagShale Oil Reserves (Millions of Barrels)
#3ChinaFlag of China32,000
#4ArgentinaArgentina Flag27,000
#5LibyaFlag of Libya26,000
#6VenezuelaFlag of Venezuela13,000
#7MexicoFlag of Mexico13,000
#8PakistanFlag of pakistan9,000
#9CanadaFlag of Canada9,000
#10IndonesiaFlag of Indonesia8,000

Ready to Start Trading Oil?

Our recommended brokers for trading oil are:

4 Reasons To Trade Oil

Crude oil investing has several advantages over traditional equities for certain trader classes. Depending on your investment objectives, oil trading can be used for:

  1. Diversification
  2. Safe Haven
  3. Inflation Hedging
  4. Speculation


Adding oil commodities to an equities-only or fixed-income portfolio lowers the overall volatility because there is non-correlation between these asset classes. Commodities like oil are useful in countering price movements in a traditional portfolio.

Safe haven

Commodities are helpful during periods of global economic uncertainty because they tend to retain their value even during market turbulence. Investing in oil can be a strategy against exposure to loss if the market takes a downturn.

Inflation hedging

Commodities have intrinsic value independent from currency, which means they hold their value even as the value of currency falls in an inflationary environment. This is especially true of oil, given the constant and reliable global demand.


There are often wild swings in commodities prices; investing in oil futures and derivatives is a way to profit quickly from movement in oil prices, which are notoriously volatile. It’s not unheard of for prices to move 5% or 10% in a single trading session. Wall Street speculators aren’t the only ones betting on oil volatility; many major institutional traders buy oil-linked investments for their endowment and pension funds.

Perhaps the most significant advantage of trading oil is that demand is virtually guaranteed. There may be fluctuations in supply—and therefore price—but for the foreseeable future there is demand is unlikely to flatline or disappear.

Experienced traders with a high tolerance for risk can make substantial profits on low capital outlays, especially with CFDs, but also with oil ETFs and futures contracts.

The major risk with commodities in general—and oil investing in particular—is the extreme volatility in the market. The risk of loss is high, especially with derivatives, due to factors entirely beyond the trader’s control. It is not an investment for people with risk aversion, and oil trading should be just one strategy in a well-diversified portfolio.

How to Trade Oil

Trading oil requires a bit more consideration than other types of assets because there are many product choices you can use to get into the market, from pure-play oil derivatives to oil and gas company equities. Each has its own advantages and set of complicating issues.

Most oil commodities traders will choose one of the following options:

Method of InvestingComplexity Rating (1=easy, 5=hard)Storage CostsSecurity CostsExpiration DateManagement CostLeverageRegulated

Oil Shares

This is perhaps the least complex method of crude oil investing; you simply purchase equities in a company you believe will remain profitable. It’s important to keep in mind that although there is usually a correlation between the price of crude and oil company profitability, this isn’t always the case—and disasters like the BP oil spill can do serious damage to an otherwise solid investment.

Interested in oil stocks? Here are the 5 biggest listed oil companies:

 Current PriceOverviewListingsFoundedNumber of EmployeesInteresting Fact
Chinese oil and gas company based in BeijingShanghai (SSE), Hong Kong (SEHK), New York (NYSE), London (LSE)2000350,000+Largest oil refiner in Asia
American multinational oil and gas corporationNew York (NYSE)199980,000+Largest refiner in the World with a capacity of nearly 6m barrels per day
Royal Dutch Shell
British-Dutch multinational headquartered in The NetherlandsLondon (LSE), Amsterdam (Euronext), New York (NYSE)190790,000+Shell have over 40,000 service stations worldwide
Headquartered in London but the USA houses the lion share of its operationsLondon (LSE), Frankfurt (FWB), New York (NYSE)190874,000+Burmah Oil Company, the company that eventually became BP, was the first to discover oil in the Middle East
Total SA
French multinationalParis (CAC), New York (NYSE), Amsterdam (Euronext)1924100,000+Total has over 900 subsidiaries covering all areas of energy

Oil ETFs

Exchange-traded funds or ETFs are one of the ways traders can gain a piece of the oil market. You can choose funds that track the performance of oil prices using futures contracts or funds tied to a basket of oil company equities. Here are the 5 leading oil ETFs based on their assets under management:

United States Oil FundiPath S&P GSCI Crude Oil Index ETNProShares Ultra Bloomberg Crude OilPowerShares DB Oil FundProShares UltraShort Bloomberg Crude Oil

Oil Futures

A futures contract is simply an agreement to buy or sell a quantity of oil at a specified date for a specified price. These are standardized instruments for WTI and Brent that trade on the NYMEX; the standard contract is for 1,000 barrels of oil, so a $1 movement in price is equal to $1,000. Most oil futures contracts require about a 10% margin, which is rather high given the cost of 1,000 barrels of oil, although margins can change depending on volatility—don’t be surprised to get a margin call on oil futures contracts.

Futures contracts are settled by physical delivery of the crude oil, which is something most traders don’t want to deal with, so it’s important to keep track of delivery and expiration dates and either roll the position over another month or close it entirely before the contract expires.

Trading oil futures is typically for professional traders due to the high cost and complexity involved. However, contracts for difference or CFDs provide a convenient way to “access” the crude oil futures market, see below for a detailed explanation.

Oil CFDs

Oil is a global 24-hour market with constantly moving prices; it’s an ideal medium for day traders to profit from fast movement. It’s also a highly liquid market, so it’s easy to get in or out, regardless of the size of the trade.

A “Contract For Difference”, or CFD, is basically a contract between an trader and a broker to exchange the difference in value between when a trade is entered and exited. Standard leverage is usually between a 2% and 20% margin requirement, although lower-end margins are more typical. Most CFD brokers provide the facility to speculate on the price of oil futures contracts but contract sizes are typically much smaller than standard futures contracts; a crude oil CFD order can be for as little as 25 barrels (depending upon the firm) compared to 1,000 barrels for a standard futures contract.

CFD trades are frequently commission-free (the broker makes a profit from the spread), and since there is no underlying ownership of the asset, there is no shorting or borrowing cost.

Here’s how CFDs work: This is NOT a trading recommendation

You’re bullish on WTI, so you decide to invest in oil CFDs at the quoted price of $60.25 to $60.50 (the lower price is for a short contract, the higher for long).

To buy 10 long CFDs on 3% margin, you would need $1,815 in your account ($60.50 [long price] x 10 [number of contracts] x 100 [number of barrels in a standard contract] x 0.03 [margin percent]). You would then “control” $60,500 worth of oil for your $1,815.

That afternoon, you notice the price is up to $62.50 to $62.75, so you exit the trade, which now has a value of $62,750. You pocket roughly $2,250 on the deal. Of course, if the price ticks down, the degree of leverage works against you rather quickly.

CFDs are complex financial products, they aren’t available in the US and are only recommended for experienced traders. You will not own the oil itself but your capital is at risk.

We’ve reviewed and ranked dozens of CFD brokers based on 10 key criteria such as fees, functionality and security (see full list).

Plus500 is one of the top brokers in oil CFD trading.


Oil trading at Plus500

This is an example and not a trading recommendation.

how to open an oil position in plus500

How to open an oil CFD position on Plus500

Plus500 logo

  • No commission on trades (other charges may apply)
  • Free demo account
  • Easy to use (mobile-friendly) platform
  • Industry-leading risk management tools
  • Trade oil and hundreds of other markets
  • Your funds are safe – publicly listed company regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority and Cyprus’ Securities and Exchange Commission

Start Trading at Important: Your capital is at risk.

Oil Options

With oil options, an trader essentially pays a premium for the right (not the obligation) to buy or sell a defined amount of oil at a specified price for a specified period of time. Crude oil options are the most widely traded energy derivative in the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), one of the largest derivative product markets in the world

Despite their name, the underlying of these options is not actually crude oil itself, but crude oil futures contracts. Options in the oil market—and the commodities market in general—are more expensive due to the high perceived volatility of commodities prices.

Oil Binary Options

  • Binary options exchange
  • Trade oil as well as dozens of other commodities and markets
  • Regulated and legal for US residents
  • Low cost with no broker commissions
  • Guaranteed limited risk

What are binary options?

Binary options limited-risk contracts based on a simple yes/no question about the market’s price action. For example, “Will the price of oil be above $X at 3pm today?”. If you believe the answer to that question is yes then you might buy the binary. If you think the answer is no then you would sell. If at 3pm you’re right you get the $100, if not then you get zero.

Start Trading Binary Options at Nadex

Further Reading

Lawrence Pines is a Princeton University graduate with more than 25 years of experience as an equity and foreign exchange options trader for multinational banks and proprietary trading groups. Mr. Pines has traded on the NYSE, CBOE and Pacific Stock Exchange. In 2011, Mr. Pines started his own consulting firm through which he advises law firms and investment professionals on issues related to trading, and derivatives. Lawrence has served as an expert witness in a number of high profile trials in US Federal and international courts.
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