CARLSBAD — The oil and gas industry sustains more than just the local economy in Eddy County, it is also inadvertently fuels crime rates in the area.
Statistics show that crime rates have been steadily rising in Carlsbad and Eddy County since the beginning of the boom, causing some agencies to get creative with their resources and straining the resources of other departments.
The marriage between an oil and gas economy and crime is much like a traditional marriage — one follows the other through poverty and prosperity.
When times in the oil patch are good, expendable income draws those offering recreational drugs or darker entertainment such as prostitution. Now with oil dropping below $40 a barrel, officials said they won’t be surprised to see theft and burglaries skyrocket, a trend that’s already showing itself.
And residents aren’t the only one’s being targeted. The oil and gas industry itself is beginning to measure the price of doing business in Southeast New Mexico, with the dollar amounts of stolen property in the millions.
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce said that the oil and gas industry has drawn more people to Eddy County and that bump in population is the traditional marker for increased crime.
According to statistics from the Judicial Branch of New Mexico, the number of felony property and drug cases in district court have been steadily rising over the last five years.
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway recently announced an estimated population of 71,500 people in the Carlsbad area based on city water usage reports.
Lower courts are seeing the same trends in felony and misdemeanor crimes, with the number of felony cases in Carlsbad Magistrate Court doubling between 2012 and 2014.
However, Luce said that pointing the finger at one industry is not a fair analysis of the situation when a large portion of the new population are people employed outside of the oilfield through companies that come in to take advantage of the economic boom.
Luce recently prosecuted Texas native Robert Earley who was working in the oilfields of Eddy County in a felony homicide case for the murder of his girlfriend, but she says that crime was not directly tied to the oilfield.
“If you think about, his job didn’t have anything to do with the case,” Luce said. “He worked in the oilfield industry, he stayed in a room paid for by an oil field company, and her body was found near a (oil) site, but this is a person on person crime. People look at (cases) like this and think, ‘look at what they’re bringing in.'”
While the brutality of a homicide tends to catch the public’s attention it’s the lesser crimes that are challenging the local courts.
The average number of homicides in Eddy County over the last five years has remained steady, with a drop in 2013.
Chief Deputy District Attorney for Eddy County Roxeanne B. Esquibel sees other challenges for her office associated with a boomtown, such as locating witness or victims when they’re spending three days in the remote oil patches in the county.
“We have a bigger challenge as a D.A.’s office in notifying and maintaining contact when their residence is transient,” Esquibel said.
To address the issue, Esquibel said that an investigator has been hired, and they are hoping to hire a second victims advocate pending grant money, as well as add additional attorneys to serve both Lea and Eddy Counties.
Giving up is not an option, Luce said.
“We have to stay on top of these, it’s our job,” Luce said. “But there are only so many judges, there are only so many attorneys.”
One thing Luce does not want to see happen is the dismissal of cases because of an inability to take them to trial quickly, as happened in Albuquerque when judges dismissed hundreds of cases for violating defendant’s right to speedy trial.
According to the New Mexico District Courts 2014 annual report, the fifth district (Eddy, Chavez and Lea) tried more jury trials per judge than any other district in the state.
And there’s only so much money in the budget, Luce and Esquibel said, to address the changes needed.
An unexpected victim
Oil and gas industry leaders said that when it comes to crime, their companies are often victims as well.
Bill Vanderland is chairman of the New Mexico Oil Crime Committee, made up of some of the larger oil and gas exploration and production companies in the area.
The committee was formed in 2014 to address the issue of security for those companies.
Vanderland said there is no real way to measure the financial impact that crimes against oilfields have.
“We want to see what the bad guys are doing so that we can make our assets harder to get to, we can make them more secure and cut down on loss,” Vanderland said.
The Energy Security Council, a national trade organization that monitors the impact of crime on all energy sectors, estimates that around $73 million was lost to fraud and property crime in the Permian Basin in 2010.
From the loss of copper wire and theft of company vehicles to the padding of invoices, Vanderland said that the industry is vulnerable in its own way to crime but in his mind the biggest cost to the industry is from white collar crime.
“You can steal a whole lot more with padded invoices over time than you can with a trailer taking valves and tubulars off a site,” Vanderland said. “That’s another side we look at: common frauds and unscrupulous vendors padding invoices.”
To address the issue, the committee is partnering with local law enforcement to help train officers about oil and gas industry crimes and to learn what information the agencies need to help close cases and get convictions.
Because the community is a key part of the effort to prevent crime, Vanderland said the companies operating in the Permian Basin are aware how big of an impact watchful eyes can make in creating a safe community and when it comes to spotting suspicious activity,
“Obviously having Carlsbad and other communities as safe, good places to live benefits everybody. All of our company’s have workers who live in these communities, so we want Carlsbad to be the best place to live and work that it can possibly be,” Vanderland said. “So we’re doing what we can from our side to get things in place so we can keep criminals and others engaged in illegal activity identified to law enforcement.”
Strains on the system
Emergency lines at the Regional Emergency Dispatch Agency in Artesia and at the Carlsbad Emergency Dispatch are being kept busy these days.
Carlsbad emergency dispatch has recorded a steady rise in the number of calls for service since 2009.
Many of those calls are to address traffic accidents, whose numbers soared from 634 in 2013 to 961 in 2014, according to CPD statistics.
“You bring this many people together in a community, crime is going to happen. You can’t just blame it on the oilfield worker or oilfield companies. You have to blame it on the population density,” Undersheriff Mark Cage said.
The south district, which includes Carlsbad, seems to be bearing the brunt of the growth in crime; Cage said deputies in the south district are considerably busier with twice as many service calls in Carlsbad.
Eddy County Sheriff Scott London said that it is logical people look to the oil and gas industry as a cause of many of the challenges that face a boomtown.
“I did attribute that (rise in crime) to the oilfield. Not that they’re the ones committing the crimes, but it’s an increase in (population) numbers and a lot of times crime is a numbers game,” London said. “We’re about a year and half behind what the Dakotas are going through and we can look at that and say if we’re not ahead of the game that’s what is going to happen here.”
London and Cage said that in response to the crime increase, the department has made several changes, including having all felony crimes assigned to detectives, stressing the importance of follow up to reported incidents and restructuring patrol schedules to make sure the county is fully covered.
And all agencies and stakeholders have their eyes on what the drop in oil prices may do to the economy in Southeast New Mexico, and what that may mean for crime.
“A downturn in the economy means a rise in property crimes,” said Luce.
Even the price of oil dropping does not mean that crime rates will slow down. In fact, it could just transform the numbers completely.
“With a downturn, with layoffs starting to begin across our whole area, that is something we are very much attuned to,” Vanderland said. “We were expecting to see a big rise in crime. So far we’re not getting the level of activity that we feared and we’ll continue to hope and pray that doesn’t materialize.”
This article was written by JESSICA ONSUREZ from Carlsbad Current-Argus, N.M. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.