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Crude Oil Thefts Rise In Texas As Low Prices Force Job Cuts


People who round up and steal cattle, cattle rustlers, have long been reviled, but they've also been part of Texas mythology ever since there have been cattle on the range. Well, now the downturn in oil prices is giving rise to a new kind of criminal, oil rustlers. Mose Buchele from member station KUT takes us to South Texas.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Mike Peters drives through the brush country of La Salle County touring the oil fields. As he steers his pickup, he says, let's play cop for a little while. Peters was on the San Antonio police force for more than 30 years, so he knows how to play cop.

MIKE PETERS: You notice the truck that was here when we pulled out?


PETERS: I don't know the truck. It's not one of ours.

BUCHELE: So you're wondering what they're up to.

After Peters retired, he became head of security for the drilling company Lewis Energy. The truck he was following seemed to be trying to enter oil well sites.

PETERS: More than likely, he's purely legitimate. But if you don't question when you see something like that, you never catch anybody.

BUCHELE: These days, he's trying to catch oil thieves. It's become a big problem. He says people are sneaking into well sites and stealing crude oil. We'll get into how that works in a minute. But first, why? Why would anyone want to steal oil when prices are so low? For some answers, let's take a detour to the nearby city of Cotulla. In a town plaza, cars line up for an outdoor food pantry. Volunteers say the need is great. Since the oil downturn, many people are out of work. Ismael Telles put it this way.

ISMAEL TELLES: Gas goes up, the oil field goes up. Then the gas goes down, and then you go back to the house.

BUCHELE: Telles used to work the oil fields. He's been unemployed now for a couple years. He says these days, people are getting creative to make ends meet.

TELLES: Like cut grass, lawn mowers, weed eating.

BUCHELE: Odd construction jobs, ranch work, maybe even stealing.

MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: It's all about the money. It's always about the green dollar.

BUCHELE: That's La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez. Since the downturn, he's investigated all sorts of oil field thefts - stolen generators, stolen truck batteries, and yes, stolen oil. He says these crimes seem to be on the rise.

RODRIGUEZ: You know, you got people that they hire to work, and then for some reason, they get terminated. They get fired. And then they know the system so they know when they can go to the location where they know there's the oil, and they sell it in the black market.

BUCHELE: This eerie noise is the wind hitting the side of an empty tanker truck. It was used in an alleged oil heist last fall. Now it's in a police impound lot in Cotulla. If you know how to use a truck like this, it's easy to connect to an oil storage tank. Grab some crude. The next step is laundering it. Lewis Energy's Mike Peters says one way people do that is partner with the owner of an oil well that isn't producing.

PETERS: And all of a sudden, it becomes what we call a miracle well. It will all of a sudden start producing 25, 50 barrels a day where before it didn't produce anything.

BUCHELE: Another way is to claim the oil as salvaged, skimmed from the wastewater that's a byproduct of oil production. So how big a problem is oil theft?

PETERS: The standard answer to that, which comes out of the Energy Security Council, is that it is probably between 1 to 3 percent of all the oil produced in Texas.

BUCHELE: That could be billions of dollars. That's why oil companies in Texas are lobbying for higher penalties against thieves. Some want to fund more police just to patrol the oil fields. Remember that suspicious looking at the beginning of the story, he turned out to be a hunter. But, Mike Peters says he's glad he checked just to be on the safe side. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.

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