• December 3, 2020

Oilfield thefts vex industry - Odessa American: Inthepipeline

Oilfield thefts vex industry

Copper wire losses sometimes shut down entire fields

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  • High Stakes

    Manager of Lone Star Instrumentation Mike Nabarrette poses for a photo in a company storage yard on Wednesday afternoon in west Odessa. Nabarrette said copper thieves have hit his electrical contracting company’s work sites numerous times.

Posted: Sunday, June 28, 2020 4:30 am

There’s a war going on in the oilfield and, as in all wars, subterfuge, intelligence-gathering, troop strength and generalship make the difference.

In the struggle that’s gone on for decades between law enforcement and oilfield thieves, the advantage ebbs and flows with the cops sometimes subduing the criminals and the criminals sometimes holding sway for awhile.

The stakes are high with wells and drilling rigs being put out of production and the losses of oil, tools, meters, tubing, valves and copper wire running into millions.

And it’s no joke for the thieves because big dollar losses can mean long state and federal prison terms.

Formed in 2008 and backed by the FBI in Midland, the Permian Basin Oilfield Theft Task Force has consisted of deputies from Andrews, Midland and Ector counties who fought the war full time; however, COVID-19 has driven the Andrews and Midland County sheriff’s offices from the battlefield and left Ector County Sheriff’s Lt. Rick Dickson and Deputy Deborah Puckett to soldier on alone with the FBI.

“We have 10 known oilfield thieves in jail now and that has slowed things down considerably,” Dickson said Tuesday. “We put one guy in jail who said he’d been stealing copper for 30 years. That was his career. It’s amazing.

“To Sheriff Griffis’ credit, we have pushed them out of Ector into the rural counties.”

Noting that copper wire brought $2 a pound at scrap metal yards till the oil slump dropped it to 90 cents, the lieutenant said, “We average seeing 200 to 500 pounds taken off a rig.

“Some use pruning shears and others bolt-cutters to pull the inch-thick copper cable off the generators that power the rigs. Those who are really good at it have good tools. They can get 500 pounds in two hours with one or two stealing it, somebody else stripping it and somebody else selling it.

“If you dig deep into it, most cases turn into organized crime.”

Dickson said oilfield criminals typically steal to finance their drug habits. “When we had the big layoffs, they just dropped what they had in their hands and left it laying out in the fields,” he said.

“But there are not so many thefts by people coming back to steal. It’s pretty much the same bunch we were working to begin with. There’ve been a lot of cases where pulling copper wire off wells has shut down entire oilfields because the oil company had to make a determination if a well should be put back into production. A small producer might not be put back in.

“It’s not so much the copper, it’s the rewiring and replacement. They might lose $1,500 in copper but have to spend $70,000 to put it back into production. Ward, Martin, Midland, Crane, Upton, Gaines – all the jurisdictions are plagued with it.”

Dickson said thieves may take copper to any of three scrap metal recycling yards in Ector County or two in Midland County, but they may also carry it as far as Dallas-Fort Worth to avoid being tracked down. “I try to make the scrap yards every day,” he said, adding that many less bothersome cases aren’t reported.

“Say a rig comes up missing a stainless steel valve. They just go get another one and it never gets reported because they don’t want to slow down. We’re in almost daily contact with the oilfield security people and the pumpers tell us if there is a pickup that shouldn’t be out there. We try to stay on top of what the crooks are driving.”

Lone Star Instrumentation Manager Mike Nabarrette said copper thieves have hit his electrical contracting company’s work sites numerous times, particularly before the slowdown depressed copper prices. “We have been dealing with it for a long time,” Nabarrette said.

“We wire rigs and pumping units and we go out there and see where the cables have been cut and the wire pulled out of the conduit. So we have to go back and replace it.”

Former Andrews County Deputy Sheriff Mark Greenhaw was a founding member of the Permian Basin Oilfield Theft Task Force and now he patrols the properties of XTO Energy, the oil- and gas-producing subsidiary of the Exxon Corp. “It comes in waves,” Greenhaw said.

“We’ll get a bad wave of it and then it will slow down for a little while after we get them caught till we get the next group in. They have also been stealing diesel pickups and stealing diesel from generators. They’re deep into narcotics. They can’t hold a job, so they are reduced to thefts and the oilfield is an easy target.

“That’s why the big oil companies like Apache, Diamond, Oxy and XTO hire people like me to fight this and get these people who are stealing their equipment and property. It’s West Texas. It’s flat and they get out into the middle of nowhere and they can see car lights coming for four or five miles.”

Greenhaw said increasingly sophisticated technology helps. “We usually respond after the thefts have occurred,” he said.

“But we have a lot of hidden cameras out and about with infrared emitters that can see in the dark.”

Greenhaw said the thefts of oil, using vacuum trucks, from tanks on company property are also vexatious with thieves filling up with 120 barrels and selling for less than half-value on the black market. “There are places all over where they can sell it,” he said.

“The SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems send out alarms about the levels in the tanks and the pumpers respond. Sometimes we catch them in the act.”


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