Dispatch from a gas patch shopping trip

Reporters Notebook from New Mexico's San Juan Basin.

 

Under dim fluorescent lights in the cavernous space, five people stand mesmerized by the images flashing before them, repeated in hyper-real clarity on a dozen flat screens, each at least four feet across. This is what greets the shopper, nay, the member of Sam’s Club, in Farmington, New Mexico. I’m here to buy stuff in large quantities, but also to look for concrete examples of how falling oil prices are working their way through the economy of this oil and gas town for my latest story for High Country News.

Farmington has more than 300 active and abandoned wells within its city limits.
Jonathan Thompson

My editor suggested the visit. He said my story’s too full of numbers and economics and needs some humanity. Sometimes it seems like he wants me to hammer out one of those pieces from the increasingly crowded my-year-as-an-oiltown-stripper genre. Somehow, though, I don’t think the Taboo Show Club, located in a low-slung, Pepto-Bismol-colored building west of town, would hire me.

So I asked my sources for ways the bust is playing out on the ground, for names of people who were laid off or whose businesses failed when natural gas prices crashed back in 2008, or during the current oil price crash. They were tight-lipped. Maybe my timing’s off: The victims of the 2008 bust have fled, and the oil bust has yet to be strongly felt in the local economy. Or maybe it’s just that here in the West we’re stoic folks, and don’t like to talk about our problems. Even the bureaucrats I spoke to, after telling me how devastating the bust was, glossed over the impacts. The 2008 bust is clearly visible in the numbers — tax revenues at the city, county and state level plummeted shortly after natural gas prices did. Now, tax receipts are going down again thanks to falling oil prices. Yet outside the industry, folks seem somewhat oblivious, not understanding the connection between that and the slowdown for some businesses.

I try to explain this all to my editor. He tells me to keep looking for those victims. So here I am, at Sam’s Club, watching some Disney cartoon in octuplicate, wondering how to go about this investigation. What am I supposed to do? Tap the guy ogling the televisions on the shoulder and ask, “Hi, I was just wondering how the Saudi price war is impacting you, personally?” You just don’t do that around here. People value their personal space and their privacy. So I’m left to observe the super-sized carts pushed around by shoppers, the contents serving as economic indicators. The first family I see, probably Navajo, has piled not only a flat-screen tv into its cart, but also one of those pod coffee makers and a few other things, obscured by the tv. Times must not be that hard.

Signs on a Farmington street.
Jonathan Thompson

But then, these folks, along with those with the giant jars of mayonnaise, the 24-packs of toilet paper, the multiple cases of sugary drinks, the three-pound bag of dark chocolate chips (that would be me), may have come from far outside the gas patch, and its direct economic influence, to buy all this stuff. Farmington hasn’t made much headway in efforts to diversify the economy, except in this respect: The influx of population and money during various booms have attracted businesses of a certain type, thereby making Farmington the retail center of the Four Corners region. The city of 45,000 has not just one, but two Super Wal-Marts, each among the biggest in the state. It’s got just about every corporate chain eating establishment you can imagine, not to mention dozens of car dealerships. Since food and medicine aren’t taxed in New Mexico — an effort by then Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration to reduce the tax burden on the state’s poor — out-of-state shoppers get a bonus discount on all that food they buy at Sam’s. That draws shoppers from as far away as Silverton, Colorado, and Kayenta, Arizona. Which means that using Sam’s Club to monitor the local economy may not work.

I continue my journey nevertheless, sure to stop at the free sample stations along the way for a mid-afternoon snack. The potato-chip section is bustling; the booze section is empty. This is significant, I’m sure. But how? In the meat section, an attractive young woman in a summery dress ponders large slabs of beef and pork. I step closer to see what she chooses. If it’s prime rib, I guess it’s a sign of a good economy, chicken means it’s lousy and pork tenderloin somewhere in between. She reaches down into the cooler and touches the hunks of flesh wrapped tightly in cellophane and styrofoam. She takes an eternity to choose, and after putting the loin in her cart I look up to find a guy with short, spiky hair, a tight t-shirt and bulging biceps glaring at me — the woman’s significant other. I suppose I could ask him if his apparent insecurities have anything to do with being laid off from the gas patch. Instead, I hurry off to the cheese aisle where I stare at a one pound block of Roquefort for an impossible amount of time.

People have been killed for less. The local newspaper runs a story on a shooting, a stabbing, or sexual assault nearly every day, and the violent crime rate here is far higher than the national average. The local cops have a unit dedicated to dealing with gangs such as the South Side Locos, Tortilla Flats and, according to unconfirmed rumors, the Nageezi Sharks, a Navajo gang. Just a couple years ago, a gang revenge shooting went down in the mall parking lot, across from Sam's Club. It’s tempting to attribute this to the boom and bust cycles’ fraying of the social fabric; the gangs are apparently linked to Mexican cartels that are in the meth business, and roughnecks are known to dabble in the stimulant to keep them “blowing and going” out on the rigs. In North Dakota’s Bakken shale region, crime rates shot up along with the drill rigs.

But it’s not a simple equation. Down near the rural Navajo communities of Lybrook and Counselor, where oil-seeking rigs have popped up in recent years, crime has increased, according to anecdotal accounts; Indian allottees who receive cash for allowing their land to be drilled have allegedly been robbed. In boom towns elsewhere, crime rates appear to be in tune with rig counts, the barometers of boom and bust. Yet in Farmington such a correlation seems to have vanished long ago. Crime rates remained steadily high before and after the 2008 bust. Even car crash rates haven’t gone up or down as a result of oilfield activity. There are exceptions. So-called oil-field crime — the theft of solar panels, copper wire and “drip gas” from remote oil and gas wells — tends to go up when oil prices are high (the local sheriff’s department even has a unit that cooperates with energy company security to fight this sort of crime). As do auto crashes involving big trucks.

As I stand in the checkout line, waiting to buy my chocolate chips along with the masses, it occurs to me that Farmington may have ridden the fossil fuel boom and bust roller-coaster for so long that it has, at least to some extent, transcended the cycle. Farmington of the 1950s, after a pipeline to California spurred a natural gas drilling frenzy, was a boomtown. Farmington of the 1970s, when the second of two huge coal plants was built west of town and the energy crises sent oil and gas prices into the stratosphere, was a boom town. Those booms forever altered the landscape, along with the economic social and cultural fabric of the place. In 1974 a group of local Anglo teenagers murdered at least three Navajos and got off with a slap on the wrist, just one example of blatant bigotry turning violent during that era. Though the racism had long existed on a paternalistic level, the massive influx of outsiders who were not accustomed to living alongside Native Americans was blamed for the escalation of violence.

Residue of those dark times endures, but for the most part, Farmington has moved on. The qualities that characterize a boomtown have faded. There are no man camps out in the sage and piñon, hotel rooms aren’t booked up for months by out-of-town contractors, and I suspect that roughnecks getting off work on the rigs — the few that are left — are as likely to take their family to Red Lobster as they are to hit the Taboo Show Club with their buddies. Transience has given way to permanence; during times of bust, locally-based companies simply peddle their wares to other areas, and the workers who live here, instead of uprooting and following the rigs, make long-range commutes.

And this dyed-in-the-wool oil and gas town endures.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.