POSTED: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 11:00am
UPDATED: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 11:14am
AUSTIN, Texas — Jose Lopez is rarely surprised when a sheriff's deputy pulls up to the battery warehouse he manages. Law enforcement officials are frequent visitors to Tri-State Battery Supply in Longview, which has become an ally in a crackdown on thefts  of equipment in East Texas’ slice of the lucrative Haynesville Shale.
In the past month, Lopez said, the business received a handful of visits from officers investigating thefts of batteries that drillers use to power equipment that monitors pipelines. Companies like his often buy used batteries — dead or alive. The batteries are similar to those used in cars, but can cost a couple hundred dollars more.
“We’re all on our toes trying to help police as much as possible,” Lopez said. “We’ve always tried to help out those local [drillers], because we sell batteries to them, too.”
In Harrison County alone, as many as 90 batteries have been swiped from oil and gas fields this summer, said Lt. Floyd Duncan with the sheriff’s office, saddling local producers with thousands of dollars in replacement costs and lost production.
Drillers and law enforcement nationwide are grappling with theft issues, and in the state's booming corners, some fear the temptation to steal will only swell as production expands. Law enforcement officers are working with drillers to track stolen equipment, and they’re asking battery recyclers to be their eyes and ears. Some say Texas lawmakers could help, too, by expanding a law that now only applies to scrap metal recyclers.
“We’re beginning to see more and more of it because there’s been so much production,” said Ed Krevit, chief deputy at the Midland County Sheriff's Office. He expects a surge of activity in the Cline Shale to exacerbate theft problems in the Permian Basin.
Thieves are eyeing more than just batteries. Metal valves, piping — even the crude itself — often vanish from oilfields, running up production costs. In a 2008 study, West Texas counties estimated that oilfield thefts cost drillers $78 million during the previous three years. The actual costs could be twice that, because many thefts go unreported, said John Chamberlain, head of the Houston-based Energy Security Council, a nonprofit adviser to the industry on security issues.
"It's a frustrating problem," he said. "There are some companies that just write off thefts as the cost of doing business, and it's hard for police to track."
Batteries are particularly popular targets because they are small and relatively easy to nab with bolt cutters.
Tri-State Battery Supply said it routinely records basic information about each sale, including a customer’s name and address. That data can help investigators track stolen goods, law enforcement officials said, but state law doesn’t require battery recyclers to collect it. And there are still plenty who will accept cash with no questions asked.
Texas does, however, require recyclers of certain metals to report to the Department of Public Safety information on sales of “regulated" material — a long list including metals such as copper, bronze and aluminum and items like manhole covers, guardrails and street signs.
Some experts say it might help if lawmakers added batteries to the list. It's a move neighboring Louisiana recently made.
“I’d certainly support it,” said Duncan, the Harrison sheriff's lieutenant, “and I think my boss would, too.”
Chamberlain, of the Energy Security Council, said the legal tweak wouldn't hurt, but it won't make a measurable impact unless it's strongly enforced.
"There are a few honest [battery recyclers] out there, but there's probably a majority who cut corners," he said.
Drillers can also take their own steps to increase the chances of catching thieves, experts say, including branding or painting items with a company seal. Marked batteries are more likely to raise red flags among honest battery suppliers, helping police reconnect ripped-off drillers with their stolen property.
That’s what led to the arrest last month of an East Texas man who tried to sell to Tri-State some batteries that had been spray painted pink. The battery company thought the markings resembled those made by drillers, so it alerted authorities, supplying them with information that helped to track down the suspected thief.
Krevit, the Midland County chief deputy, said some companies use paint mixed with unique chemicals to prove ownership of any recovered batteries. To get it tested, “all you need to do is take it to Sherwin-Williams,” he said. Some companies have monitored batteries using GPS devices, but that can be a costly solution.
Local law enforcement officials across Texas have met with one another — and with drilling companies — to discuss which tactics work best to prevent thefts and catch theives. The Permian Basin Oilfield Theft Task Force, a mix of federal, state and local officials that formed in 2008, partly in response to the eye-catching tally of the costs of oilfield thefts in West Texas, has educated officials throughout the state, said Krevit, who helped to organize the task force.
Those efforts have helped, but it's impossible to completely stamp out oilfield crime, Krevit said. “It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s going to be around for quite some time.”