Methamphetamine fuels the West's oil and gas boom

October 03, 2005, Craig, Colorado

Over the years, methamphetamine has claimed victims from across the socio-economic spectrum, but according to Grinstead and energy industry insiders, it has recently become epidemic on the oil and gas rigs sprouting in the dusty expanses around Craig, a small town of roughly 10,000 in the northwest corner of Colorado.

So early this year, [Sheriff] Grinstead, a solid Republican with friends and family in the energy business, made a radical suggestion. At a February county commissioners' meeting, he called for random drug testing of all oil and gas workers. With that request, he publicly declared that the county's oil and gas industry -- one of its main economic engines -- has a drug problem that it can't or won't control.

"I'm not saying everyone in oil and gas is a druggie," says Grinstead, "but these traveling drill crews seem to have a problem."

To confirm that meth use is widespread in the oil and gas fields, go no further than Grinstead's jail, and ask Tony Peck, a wiry, shaggy-haired inmate currently doing six months for violating probation for meth possession. In recent years, Peck has found steady work as a roughneck. It's a tough job, and to get him through the 12-hour days of drilling, he has often turned to meth. Known as "poor man's cocaine," the drug delivers a similar euphoric high. A hit of meth can keep a user awake for hours, even days -- at least at first.

One former roughneck says the problem is so ingrained that there's a saying around the rigs, "Either you're wired or you're fired." But a wired worker is often a dangerous worker.

At a coalbed methane industry conference in May, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, called on industry leaders to consider the effects of meth on their workforce, and to pressure the Legislature for meth treatment programs. But industry management has only recently begun to wrestle with the problem.

"There's a lot of meth out there," says Dyan Piscopo, a human resources employee with EnCana, a Canadian energy company that is drilling in Colorado's Piceance Basin and Wyoming's Jonah Field. Two years ago, she says, after finding hypodermic needles, crank pipes and other drug paraphernalia at one of its worksites, EnCana began working with Shell and Stone Energy to collect and share drug tests from every employee seeking work with the hundreds of sub-contractors that do the digging, drilling and maintenance.

Schneider says he has found entire rig crews unable to pass a drug test. Some energy companies, he says, have asked him to test only on certain days, so workers have plenty of time to back off the drug, which stays in the system for only one to three days. Firing a crew can be costly to an operator facing stiff penalties for straying from a drilling schedule, Schneider explains: "It is an incentive for a company to look the other way."

Reliable numbers that directly measure the causative relationship between energy development and meth use are difficult to come by, but it is hard to ignore the correlation between the timing of the oil and gas boom and the upsurge in meth use.

According to a 2007 study, criminal cases involving meth in Mesa County increased by more than 40% between 1999 and 2007. The peak came in 2006, when meth was a factor in 89.3% of cases before the county's courts.

Western Slope communities are fighting back. In 2005, Mesa County established a meth task force to stem the growing crisis. To help heal the social fabric torn by meth abuse, the county opened a $5 million treatment center for addicts in June 2007. And in November 2007, the county district attorney's office created a position for a full-time prosecutor to step up the legal battle against meth.

These aggressive countermeasures appear to be paying dividends. During the 2008 fiscal year, meth was a factor in only 69% of the county's court cases.

By 1974, sociologists who studied Gillette,Wyoming felt they were documenting a public health disaster. "Gillette Syndrome" soon became shorthand for the dark side of energy development.

Researchers identified sharply increased rates of drinking, divorce, delinquency, and depression as the once agrarian town's population quadrupled from 3000 to 17,000. Although more recent studies have questioned the data supporting these findings, and Gillette today is a community of 40,000 working to transcend its bad rap, the term Gillette Syndrome became a frightening watchword for communities confronting an energy boom.

Sexual Predators, Energy Development, and Conservation in Greater Yellowstone

The absolute and relative frequency of registered sex offenders grew approximately two to three times faster in areas reliant on energy extraction. The strong conflation of community dishevel, as reflected by in-migrant sexual predators, and ecological decay in Greater Yellowstone is consistent with patterns seen in similar systems from Ecuador to northern Canada, where social and environmental disarray exist around energy boomtowns.


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