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Oil Theft is Increasing in West Texas

Marfa Public Radio reports on the down side of the boom.

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A pumpjack in Midland.
Photograph by James Durbin/Reporter-Telegram via AP

The fall of oil has been wildly exaggerated, but the boom times in West Texas have brought a challenge that people outside of the fields probably haven’t given much thought to: the problem of oil theft. While that doesn’t often result in the sort of thrilling heists that open, say, the fourth Fast & Furious movie (still can’t believe Toretto got under that tanker!), it does mean real problems and real losses for people in the industry.

According to Marfa Public Radio, Texas companies stand to lose huge amounts of money from stolen oil. The estimates from the Energy Security Council out of Houston vary wildly—it ranges from $450 million to $1.5 billion—and over just 30 days in the spring, Midland and Reeves county-based companies have seen more than 3,200 barrels of oil stolen. (Last year, the station reports, there were zero reports of oil theft.) So what goes into stealing oil?

Here’s how it often works: oil truck drivers attach a load line—a hose—to the tank battery and suck out up to nearly 200 barrels of oil. They find an intermediate site to store the oil, and partner with the owner of another well that isn’t producing much. That owner gets the oil back into the pipeline system and registered with Texas oil regulators at the Railroad Commission, which makes the oil legitimate.

Another common scheme involves saltwater disposal plants—where wastewater from oil production is processed. It’s legal for wastewater operators to sell the excess oil they skim off the top of their water. But operators that steal oil will shuffle their paperwork, and mix stolen oil into the skim for a bigger profit.

The Midland County sergeant on the FBI task force assigned to police oil theft in West Texas told the station that he believes that the operations going on in that part of the state right now are well-organized. Listen to the full report here to learn more.

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