The lull in drilling has given oil companies more time to scrutinize their operations -- and their losses. As Bloomberg reports, during booms "they are moving at such a rapid pace there’s not a lot of auditing and inventorying going on," said Gary Painter, sheriff in Midland County, Texas, in the oil-rich Permian Basin; but "whenever it slows down, they start looking for stuff and find out it never got delivered or it got delivered and it’s gone." From raw crude sucked from wells to expensive machinery that disappears out the back door, drillers from Texas to Colorado are struggling to stop theft that has only worsened amid tens of thousands of lost roughneck jobs.
The moon was a waning crescent sliver Sept. 9 when a man emerged from an oil tanker, sidled up to a well outside Cotulla, Texas, and siphoned off almost 200 barrels. Then, he drove two hours to a town where he sold his load on the black market for $10 a barrel, about a quarter of what West Texas Intermediate currently fetches. As Bloomberg reports, Oil theft is as old as Spindletop, the East Texas oilfield that spewed black gold in 1901 and began the modern oil era... but once again, amid soaring unemployment, it is getting worse...
“You’ve got unemployed oilfield workers that unfortunately are resorting to stealing,” said John Chamberlain, executive director of the Energy Security Council. Related: Could The Tide Be Turning Against North American Natural Gas?
In Texas, unemployment insurance claims from energy workers more than doubled over the past year to about 110,000, according to the Workforce Commission. In North Dakota, average weekly wages in the Bakken oil patch decreased nearly 10 percent in the first quarter of 2015, compared with the previous quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
With dismissals hitting every corner of the industry, security guards hired during boom times are receiving pink slips. That’s leaving sites unprotected.
“This is like a drug organization,” said Mike Peters, global security manager of San Antonio-based Lewis Energy Group, who recounted the heist at a Texas legislative hearing. “You’ve got your mules that go out to steal the oil in trucks, you’ve got the next level of organization that’s actually taking the oil in, and you’ve got a gathering site -- it’s always a criminal organization that’s involved with this.” Related: No Move In Oil Prices As French Bombs Hit Syrian Soil
From raw crude sucked from wells to expensive machinery that disappears out the back door, drillers from Texas to Colorado are struggling to stop theft that has only worsened amid the industry’s biggest slowdown in a generation. Losses reached almost $1 billion in 2013 and likely have grown since, according to estimates from the Energy Security Council, an industry trade group in Houston. The situation has been fostered by idled trucks, abandoned drilling sites and tens of thousands of lost jobs.
The allure of ill-gotten oil money remains strong.
In April, the Weld County Sheriff’s office in Colorado recovered almost $300,000 worth of stolen drill bits. In January, a Texas man pleaded guilty to stealing three truckloads of oil worth nearly $60,000 after an investigation by the FBI and local law-enforcement officers. Robert Butler, a sergeant at the Texas Attorney General’s Office whose primary job is to investigate oil theft, said in the legislative hearing that he is investigating a case of 470,000 barrels stolen and sold over the past three years, worth about $40 million. Related: Hedge Funds Increase Bearish Bets As Oil Nears $40
In Texas, oilfield theft has become entangled with Mexican drug trafficking, as the state’s newest and biggest production area, the Eagle Ford Shale region, lies along traditional smuggling routes. That’s thrust oil workers in the middle of cartel activity, and made it even more difficult to track stolen goods across the U.S.-Mexico border, said Esquivel, the retired Border Patrol agent.
What happens next?
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