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This curve is anything but flat: The history of fluctuating oil prices

Latest downturn is unprecedented, but history shows oil prices will rise again

Stock image/Naomi Baker
Stock image/Naomi Baker (Getty)

Historically, oil prices have gone on quite a roller coaster ride.

The downward portions may not be as extreme as what’s transpired in recent days, when the price of a barrel of oil plummeted to $11.36 as of Tuesday, but the price of oil has gone up and down like a yo-yo for decades, for various reasons.

Here’s a summary of the wild ride of oil prices as broken down by decade over the past 70 years, according to Macrotrends.

Note: The reported prices below are figures adjusted for rate of inflation.

1950s and 1960s: A flat curve

There wasn’t a whole lot of fluctuation in this time period of the Baby Boomers.

In 1950, the price per barrel was $28.23. In 1960, the price started off at $26.16. By the time the ’60s ended, the price fell to $22.87 in January 1970.

1970s: Prices skyrocket during two oil shocks

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for the first three years of this decade, but that all changed quickly late in 1973.

An oil embargo was instituted by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, targeted at nations who OPEC felt were supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The United States was one nation targeted, with the price jumping from $24.08 in December 1973 to $56 a barrel at the start of 1974.

The U.S. at that time had slowly become more dependent on foreign oil because the cost of importing it from the Middle East became cheaper than getting it domestically.

The price remained in the $55 to $62 range, until prices shot up further when a second oil shock hit in 1979.

Due to the Iranian Revolution, oil output decreased and sent countries into a panic. The price jumped from $58.61 in March 1979 all the way to $109.36 by December of that year, causing long lines at gas stations.

1980s: A return to historical normalcy

After the price per barrel peaked in April 1980 at $125.89, the price slowly started to make its way back to the point it was before the oil shocks of the ’70s.

The price per barrel dropped to $64.63 by the start of 1985 and continued to fall, going as low as $31.32 in February 1986.

In December 1989, the price was $44.67 a barrel.

1990s: A great decade to drive

Much like the ’50s and ’60s, the 1990s went without much fluctuation, and a flat curve.

When the decade started, the price per barrel was $45.95 in January 1990. By the time the decade ended, it was $39.27 in December 1999.

2000s: Another crisis moves prices to all-time high

As was the case in the ’70s, nothing significant happened the first three years of this decade, but the fourth year started to see a rise.

The price went from $46.07 in January 2004 to more than $80 a barrel by July 2005, and that was only the beginning of the ascension.

A year later, the price was at $94.34, and ultimately, the price of a barrel climbed to an all-time high of $165.20 in June 2008.

The big reason was due to skyrocketing demand, which was far greater than supply that was diminishing, according to reports.

The price of a gallon of gasoline at the pump in the United States was $4.11, which put many Americans in a financial bind just as the Great Recession was beginning.

By the time January 2010 came, the price did fall to $86.81, but that was still almost double what the price was at the start of the decade.

2010s: Prices stay high before relief comes

The price stayed high until the latter half of 2014, when it started to come down. The price of a barrel went from $112.75 in February 2014 to $53.26 by January 2015.

The price went as low as $40.41 in December 2015 before steadily rising again, going to $75.83 in June 2018.

In January, the price of a barrel was $51.61.


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