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oil industry

Late-Twentieth-Century and Early-Twenty-First-Century Developments

In 1960 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was formed. Over the next decade, OPEC required that the major oil companies provide them with a larger percentage of the profits from their fields. After the oil embargo in 1973, OPEC boosted prices to $35 a barrel in 1981. The resulting energy crisis forced many developing countries to pay more for energy, negatively affecting Third World debt; industrialized countries implemented new measures to conserve and develop new sources of energy. Some new oil fields in Alaska and the North Sea were developed, boosting the world's oil reserves from 645.8 billion barrels in 1978 to 1,052.9 billion barrels in 1998.

With an abundant supply, oil prices dropped and stayed low through the 1990s, until 1999 when OPEC announced that it would cut production in order to increase oil prices worldwide. With the help of non-OPEC oil-producing nations, the organization was subsequently generally able to maintain prices between $20 and $30 a barrel, but world events, demand, and speculation have driven prices significantly higher, and in mid-2008 oil approached $150 before falling to nearly a third of that. Since 2010 oil prices have typically ranged between $80 and $110 a barrel. The utilization of hydraulic fracturing, to open up the exploitation of shale oil fields and to revive production in depleted fields, has contributed to increases in oil production in the United States, which has led to a corresponding drop in oil imports there.

Economies dependent on oil production remain subject to the gyrations of the market. The collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s ruined many independent refiners and helped produce a recession in such states as Texas; it also hurt Mexico, Venezuela, and other oil-producing nations. In contrast, the rise in oil prices from 1999 to 2008 was responsible for economic growth in Russia, Venezuela, and other oil producers, but those nations once again found their economies and government spending threatened when prices plummeted in late 2008. Improved recovery methods combined with higher prices that justify more expensive extraction costs have rejuvenated production in some older oil fields, increased the estimates of reserves in existing fields, and made feasible the exploitation of deposits once considered uneconomical.

Many oil-producing nations in the Middle East and Latin America have set up their own refining operations since the 1970s, and state-owned oil companies in OPEC countries are now among the world's largest. Many large oil companies have diversified into chemicals, and oil prices are increasingly set on commodity trading exchanges such as the New York Mercantile Exchange. Beginning in the late 1990s, the industry saw increased consolidation as already large oil companies merged with each other, including Exxon (the largest U.S. oil company) with Mobil (the second largest; forming ExxonMobil), Chevron with Texaco and Unocal as Chevron, British Petroleum with Amoco and ARCO as BP, and Conoco with Phillips Petroleum as ConocoPhillips.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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