Meth, coke and oil: A drug boom in the Texas shale patch
When Joe Forsythe returned to the West Texas oilfields last year after a stint in a drug rehab facility, he figured he had beaten his addiction to methamphetamine.
The 32-year-old rig worker and equipment handler lasted about a year before relapsing.
“It’s easy to get back into that mentality,” said Forsythe, of Midland, Texas, who said he no longer uses drugs after several stints in rehab since 2015. “I’d work 24 hours … I was just plagued with fatigue and needed something to improve my work ethic.”
Forsythe’s experience and others like it reflect a painful flipside of the nation’s shale oil boom – a parallel increase in substance abuse, drug crime and related social ills.
While drug use is a problem among industrial workers nationwide, it raises particular concern in the oil patch as U.S. production surges to record levels in what is already one of the nation’s most dangerous sectors – with a fatality rate about three times the average for other industries, according to 2015 federal statistics.
Drug use is a significant factor in workplace injuries and crimes involving oilfield workers, according to drug counselors, hospital and police officials and court records in West Texas, the epicenter of the U.S. shale sector.
As the shale revolution has spawned waves of hiring here since 2010, law enforcement authorities have tracked a boom in drug trafficking and related crime. In Midland and Ector counties, home to many Permian Basin oil workers, state and local police in 2016 seized more than 95 pounds of methamphetamine – up from less than four pounds in 2010.
Meth and cocaine are stimulants of choice in the oil patch to get though long oilfield shifts, but alcohol and pain killers such as opioids are also widely abused – often to soften the crash after taking stimulants, drug addicts and counselors said.
Drug charges in the industry town of Midland more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, to 942 from 491, according to police data. In neighboring Odessa, total drug arrests doubled between 2010 and 2016, to 1291 from 756, according to Odessa Police Department data.
The increase in drug crime stretched through two boom periods in the West Texas oil patch, before and after a crude price crash that hit in 2014.
Oil companies typically drug test job applicants and often conduct additional random tests on employees. For truck drivers and those involved with hazardous materials, tests are also conducted under federal programs run by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Several oil firms with major operations in the Permian Basin declined to discuss how they handle drugs in the oil patch or did not respond to inquiries.
Pioneer Natural Resources Co.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, declined to comment.
LONG HOURS – ON METH
Despite corporate and regulatory efforts to curb drug abuse, many oilfield workers regularly use stimulants on long shifts of grueling work for relatively high pay, said drug counselors, local law enforcement officials and oil field workers recovering from addictions.
More than a third of clients at Midland’s Springboard drug rehabilitation center are currently involved in the oil and gas industry, said Executive Director Steve Thomason.
Rising oil prices have brought more admissions for methamphetamine abuse, Thomason said.
“People say they can work on it for 24 hours straight,” he said.
Long shifts are common in the oil industry because expensive drilling equipment, often leased at high daily rates, runs through the night, and workers often have to commute to wells in remote locations. Most oil producers subcontract oilfield services to smaller companies that are not unionized.
Springboard’s admissions of methamphetamine users went up 20 percent in the first six months of this year compared with the last half of 2016, he said. The number of rigs operating in the Permian Basin increased more than 38 percent during the same period, according to data from energy services firm Baker Hughes
Corporal Steve LeSueur, a spokesman for the Odessa police, said the influx of drugs in the oil patch is stretching police resources.
“The jail has been full,” he said. “A lot of crimes that are committed are drug-related – simple property crimes, forgeries to feed their drug habits.”
METH AND MURDER
Some offenses are more severe.
In 2016, Shawn Pinson, an employee of a well construction company, was convicted of murdering an acquaintance following a drug-related dispute.
The murder occurred around the same time he was arrested for possession of methamphetamine, police records show. The victim tested positive for meth at the time of the murder, according to an autopsy.
At his trial, witnesses close to Pinson testified he had become addicted to methamphetamine while working in the oilfield, according to a prosecutor and a defense attorney involved in the case.
Pinson did not respond to a letter seeking comment and his current attorney, Michele Greene, did not respond to a request for comment.
When oil jobs are plentiful, companies desperate for labor sometimes will disregard signs of substance abuse, said three recovering drug addicts who worked in the oilfield.
“These oilfield bosses – they party, too,” Forsythe said. “As long as you’re getting the job done and not making a scene, they won’t drug test you.”
One recovering addict, who declined to use his name because he still works in the industry, said he was often high during long-haul trips driving trucks transporting oil.
“I could do a little coke and speed and it would give me the extra stretch,” he said. “It ended up running me to the ground.”
For a graphic on illegal drugs shadow oil boom, click: //fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-OIL-DRUGS/0100507G0H5/index.html
(Reporting by Liz Hampton in Midland, Texas; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Brian Thevenot)