Never one to shy away from casting an opinion, I'll predict that we may be on the verge of a better understanding of how our energy markets actually work. One crucial element could be an improved ability to forecast where crude prices are headed.

If that's the case, we'll also be better able to predict the investment directions of, say, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), Chevron (NYSE:CVX), ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP), or Anadarko (NYSE:APC). But how in the world will we achieve that better vision?

Enter the regulators from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who are examining the data that's provided to the Energy Information Administration arm of the Department of Energy by energy traders, oil and gas companies, etc. That data is used to compile the weekly reports of crude inventory levels, along with those of gasoline, heating oil, and other petroleum products. The signals they send have a major effect on U.S. and global energy prices -- and increasingly on the world's economies.

Is there hanky-panky in the numbers? The CFTC aims to find out. One flag raiser occurred in July 2007, when the oil markets suddenly flipped, such that oil for near-term delivery suddenly became more expensive than crude for delivery farther out.

The examination process has included a steady stream of subpoenas to those whose information might help uncover reporting shenanigans. Indeed, without admitting wrongdoing, Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO) has already settled civil charges that it tried to manipulate the price of crude through its bids on Platts, an energy reporting system that's part of McGraw-Hill.

Once the data is in, the result is expected to be the creation of a massive data base that could provide regulators with a better understanding of the workings of the oil trading markets. Of course, for a more complete handle on prices, traders and investors will also need to keep an eye cocked on crude demand changes worldwide and on the increasingly important state oil companies such as PetroChina (NYSE:PTR), Petrobras (NYSE:PBR), and Russia's giant Rosneft, which late last week trimmed its production forecast for 2008.

In any event, for Fools with a taste for oil investments, help in deciphering the rollercoaster vagaries of crude pricing just might be on the way. It'll be well worth your and your pocketbook's while to strap yourself in and watch the developments here.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own a single share of any of the companies mentioned. He does encourage your questions or comments. Petroleo Brasileiro is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.