From the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, giant supertankers brimming with oil are resting at anchor or slowly tracing racetrack patterns through the sea, heading nowhere.
The ships are marking time, serving as floating oil-storage tanks. The companies and countries leasing them for that purpose have made a simple calculation: the price of oil has fallen so far that it is due for a rise.
Some producing countries are trying to force that rise by using the tankers to withhold oil from the market, while traders are trying to profit by buying cheap oil now to store and sell at a higher price later. Oil storage has become so popular that onshore tank capacity is becoming scarce.
Only six months ago, companies up and down the energy pipeline were rushing oil to market, struggling to keep up with galloping demand and soaring prices. Now, with the global economy slumping and people driving less, demand for oil has plunged — and the same companies are acting in ways that would have been unimaginable until recently.
Oil producers are shutting down rigs, refiners are producing less gasoline, and investment planning throughout the industry is in turmoil.
The problem for the companies is not just that prices are lower, but that they have become volatile — historically, a sign of an unstable market whose direction is uncertain. Between Christmas and a week ago oil prices soared 40 percent, only to reverse course almost as sharply in recent days. Just last week, the price of a barrel of crude oil dropped by nearly 12 percent in one day alone.
“The oil markets are suffering acute whiplash,” said Daniel Yergin, an energy consultant and author of “The Prize,” a history of world oil markets. “Price volatility is adding to the sense of shock and confusion and uncertainty.”
The wild price swings are a continuation of last year’s trends, when the price of a barrel of oil swelled to nearly $150 in July from just below $100 in January before collapsing to less than $35 last month. Daily oil prices rose or dropped by 5 percent or more 39 times, versus just four times over the previous two years. The only recent year that was comparably volatile was 1990, the year Iraq invaded Kuwait.
The continuing volatility is sending waves of anxiety up and down the complex production and investment chains of the oil world.
A year ago, oil producers and refiners could not move their products fast enough to meet growing world demand and chase rising prices. Now, with demand and prices slumping, they are sitting on 327 million barrels at tank farms around the country, particularly at Cushing, Okla., a major storage hub and a crossroads for pipelines. That is more than 40 million barrels more in storage than this time last year, and more than 30 million barrels higher than the five-year average.
The mounting buildup has come during the last 100 days or so, as consumption of oil fell behind imports and domestic production.
With storage tanks filling up onshore, private and national oil companies, refiners and trading companies are storing another 80 million barrels aboard 35 supertankers and a handful of smaller tankers, the most in 20 years, according to Frontline Ltd., the world’s largest owner of supertankers.
The different players have different reasons for storing oil, whether onshore or offshore.
National oil companies are hoping to reverse the price slide by holding oil off the market. Iran alone is reportedly using as many as 15 tankers to store crude oil in hopes that higher prices will prop up its economy, which is dependent on oil exports.
Private trading companies like Vitol and Phibro are storing oil in expectation of higher prices. They are taking their cues from markets where traders buy and sell contracts for future delivery of oil, which are signaling higher prices down the road.
Adam Sieminski, chief energy economist at Deutsche Bank, noted that a trading company could buy oil at the spot price of nearly $40 a barrel, store it and sell a contract to deliver it in a year for about $60. “You pay between $6 and $10 a barrel to store it, and you can make $10 a barrel,” he said. “That’s why Cushing is filling up rapidly and people are leasing tankers.”
One small example of how the price uncertainty has affected behavior is the Devon Energy Corporation, an Oklahoma City company that in recent years has excited the energy world with announcements about expensive new investments in Canadian oil sands and deepwater oil exploration projects.
The company recently put off announcing details of its drilling program. Chip Minty, a Devon spokesman, said: “The volatility we have seen in the last year, and particularly the last few months, is making it more difficult to plan a drilling program that is funded through cash flow. Everybody is laying down rigs.”
Devon’s caution is a sign that the go-go days of investment are giving way to more modest expectations. Schlumberger and Halliburton, the two top oil service companies, are cutting jobs. Many oil companies are delaying investments in more expensive projects, like mining Canadian oil sands. A couple of refiners face bankruptcy.
The volatility is showing up at the retail level. Drivers who only a few weeks ago were finding relief from the summer’s $4-a-gallon gasoline are now shaking their heads as the average national price for unleaded regular gasoline has surged to $1.79, from $1.62, since Dec. 30.
Oil volatility has complicated the efforts of automobile companies to figure out future strategies. Toyota had to suspend production at one plant that builds the Tundra pickup truck for several months when gasoline prices soared last summer. Toyota then delayed completion of a second plant meant to build the Prius hybrid when falling gasoline prices led to weakening demand for that fuel-efficient model.
The gyrations in prices affect shipping and other businesses around the world. Cathay Pacific, one of many airlines that use fuel hedging strategies, recently acknowledged that it had hedging losses of hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of the collapse in fuel prices.
The slowdown in oil investment is so rapid that some analysts say they believe it is a matter of time before shortages appear that will push oil prices to new heights and damage the economy.
From day to day, the price swings reflect a push and pull among the various players in the market, and diverging geopolitical and economic trends.
After months of sharply dropping prices, psychology on the oil markets seemed to shift strongly after Christmas — sending oil prices to almost $50 in January, from just below $34 on Dec. 19.
Traders were putting investment money back into oil as OPEC appeared to be serious about cutting output. Fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza appeared to threaten a broader Middle East conflict that might crimp oil supplies. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas shipments threatened European supplies, raising fears that Europeans might have to switch from natural gas to oil.
But the mood shifted just as quickly last week when the Energy Department reported that crude oil inventories at Cushing had climbed by four million barrels, to 32 million barrels, for the week that ended Jan. 2, the highest since the government started tracking supplies in 2004. That number jumped again in a report on Wednesday, to 33 million barrels, near Cushing’s operating capacity of 35 million barrels.
Spooked by the signs of surplus, traders drove the spot price of oil down to $37.28 a barrel on Wednesday, a drop of 1.3 percent.
Gasoline, meanwhile, has become pricier at the pump because refiners have been producing less of it. Profits from refining have been so thin over the last several months that refiners have been earning little, or even losing money, on producing gasoline. So now they are storing oil or selling it to traders, or retooling their refineries to produce less gasoline and more products with better profit margins, like heating oil, diesel or jet fuel.
Valero has curtailed gasoline supplies by extending maintenance time at some refineries and cutting production at eight of its 16 refineries. “There is not a lot of incentive right now to produce gasoline because there is lots of it,” said Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero, the nation’s largest refiner. “Obviously it would be better for us if there were more stability in prices.”
While Goldman Sachs has predicted the slumping global economy will soon drive the price of oil down to $30, a top Kuwaiti oil official predicted recently that big production cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would soon push oil prices back up.
“It’s a sure bet that both will be right,” Mr. Yergin said, basing his opinion on the sharp swings of recent days.
Analysts foresee prices staying volatile for much of the year.
“Volatility is just another way of saying uncertainty,” said Adam J. Robinson, director of commodities at Armored Wolf, a California hedge fund. “The demand outlook is very uncertain, the general outlook for prices is very uncertain, and the supply outlook is very uncertain.”