Oil and gas boom wreaks havoc on southeast New Mexico highways
“With the oil field traffic, everybody is in a hurry,” said Heather Lopez about the roads in Eddy County and neighboring Lea County.
“Everybody runs like it is the end of days. Drivers get impatient. Trucks pull out in front of cars. They figure they are bigger and you are going to stop.”
Figures compiled by Eddy County show there were 17 roadway fatalities in the county in both 2018 and 2017 and seven in 2016. In Lea County, according to the New Mexico State Police, there were 24 traffic fatalities in 2018, 12 in 2017 and 10 in 2016.
“There have been, I think, eight deaths on that highway (N.M. 128) between Jal and Carlsbad,” said Jim Harris, 76, director of the Lea County Museum in Lovington. “And the road south of Jal (N.M. 18) is all tore up. You cannot believe the kinds of holes that are in it now. It’s those oil trucks. I know they bring in the money, but they do the damage.”
New Mexico’s current oil boom, which, according to Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, can be traced to the last part of 2016 and the first part of 2017, is pumping big money into the state’s coffers. And the state is looking at putting as much as $300 million to $400 million of that money into road projects statewide. Folks who live in Eddy and Lea counties, where most of the oil and gas is produced, feel the bulk of that money should be spent to repair roads pummeled by the big rigs serving the industry and also to increase the capacity of roads jammed to a standstill by overflow traffic generated by the boom.
“There are as many as 100 trucks backed up at stoplights in Jal,” said state Sen. Gregg Fulfer, R-Jal, who is himself the owner of an oil and cattle company. “When (trucks owned by private contractors) are charging oil companies $130 an hour, that’s costing the industry millions of dollars.”
Jeri Strong, public information officer and oil and gas liaison for Eddy County, points to U.S. 285, which runs north and south through the heart of the county and is a two-lane road from Loving, 10 miles southeast of Carlsbad, all the way to the Texas state line 22 miles farther on.
“You can’t pass,” Strong said of that stretch of 285. “It needs super twos (a broader two-lane highway with occasional passing lanes) and widening of the shoulders. It’s dangerous.”
Just north of Loving, N.M. 31, a two-lane highway, threads off to the north and east from U.S. 285 at an intersection made more complicated because fracking sand is hauled in by rail to a storage facility here, transferred into silos and later loaded on trucks. The result is one of those bottleneck situations that Sen. Fulfer refers to as “pinching points.”
Pinching points, Fulfer said, have a lot to do with the speeding oil and gas trucks so many people complain about.
“They are running so far behind,” Fulfer said. “They are getting calls every five minutes. ‘Where are you?’ It’s a lot of stress. When a two-hour ticket becomes a six-hour ticket it puts a lot of pressure on, and it’s costing oil companies and contractors.”
Speeding rigs not only chew up roads, which state and county governments are tasked with maintaining, but result in wear and tear on trucks and equipment and put the lives of truck drivers and others at risk.
Fulfer said New Mexico needs to address hazardous and constricting road conditions in the state’s oil patch region, not only to help prevent accidents but also to support a revenue-producing industry.
N.M. 31 loops up to connect with U.S. 62/180, which goes east to Hobbs. Driving along this highway and others in Eddy and Lea counties, it is sometimes possible to forget for a few miles about the oil and gas boom.
Traffic eases up for a while, maybe there’s just a lone oil derrick in the distance or a single gas flare on the horizon. You drive by a few windmills, some cattle grazing on winter-yellow grass and you get that Old West-never-died feeling.
It doesn’t last long.
Soon enough you notice the thick lengths of black water line snaking through the creosote and yucca toward drilling sites, drive over a hill and past a posse of pumpjacks and see a convoy of semis – green, white, orange, pale blue, dark blue, black, red, purple – heading your way or queuing up behind you.
The Lea County Museum director writes history columns for the Lovington Leader and the Hobbs News-Sun in addition to his duties with the museum, so he drives all over Lea and Eddy counties.
He’s got 340,000 miles on his 2007 Ford F-150, four-wheel-drive pickup. He said he has been driving south on N.M. 18 into Texas for the past 35 or 40 years and that in the past five years, he has witnessed a remarkable transformation.
“There are oil rigs everywhere,” he said. “The number of vehicles is just madness. When I go through Jal at 3 or 4 in the morning, there are tanker trucks lined up at the intersection of N.M. 18 and N.M. 128. The biggest problem for a guy like me who just uses the roads is that it seems to me New Mexico has never put money into the road infrastructure as we should have. I drive over into Texas and the roads there are taken care of.
“We have not had our priorities straight.”
Source: The Albuquerque Journal