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Oil booms have to be good for rural towns, right?

Mónica Ortiz Uribe May 15, 2014
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New Mexico is the nation’s sixth largest oil producer. The industry is creating thousands of jobs in the southeast corner of the state. But all that activity is straining basic services. Housing is limited, classrooms are crowded and roads are more dangerous. Now cities are struggling to catch up.

At Puckett Elementary in Carlsbad, New Mexico a first grade class sang along with their teacher. They gather inside a portable classroom. Schools in Carlsbad are running out of space. Superintendent Gary Perkowski said in the last two years the district has enrolled 200 new students.

“All of a sudden it’s going up and going up really quickly and very drastically,” Perkowski said.

Carlsbad sits atop the fuel-rich Permian Basin. Dozens of new companies have come here to take advantage of high oil prices. That’s attracted a bigger workforce. Crowded classrooms are not the only concern.   

“Last year we lost ten teachers that came to Carlsbad, signed contracts…and could not find housing,” Perkowski said.

This town of 27,000 people is growing twice as fast as the rest of the state. Teachers are competing with other newcomers looking for a home.

“We had one guy that was trying to live with his family in a motel at a hundred and something dollars a night and that didn’t last long,” Perkowski said.

Because of the high demand, major hotel chains in Carlsbad charge rates comparable to New York City.  

At a popular Mexican restaurant Mayor Dale Janway digger into a plate of green enchiladas. He had just come from the oilfields himself where he works as a safety consultant.  

“This is one of the hot spots in the country right now and there are a lot of challenges,” he said.

Janway said developers can’t build fast enough. New apartments have waiting lists. Workers live in outlying RV parks. But it’s not just the oil industry. This region is a major producer of potash, a component in fertilizer. A new mine should start construction this year. The U.S. Department of Energy also runs the country’s only permanent nuclear waste facility just outside town.

“Anytime you have growth like we do you have more urgency calls, more fire calls, more police problems,” Janway said.

Yet another issue is the traffic. It’s especially busy along the 70 miles that separate Carlsbad from the neighboring town of Hobbs. Trucks hauling long cylinder tanks and heavy machinery are non-stop on weekdays mornings.

Ten people have died in traffic accidents this year, a high number in this mostly rural county. Carlsbad native Andrew Perez lost his brother in an accident two years ago.   

“My brother worked for an oilfield company, driving trucks and he worked very hard, long hours, didn’t get sleep and ended up crashing his truck,” Perez said.

His brother left a job in a corrections facility to become a trucker, Perez said. Before that he was Marine who served in Iraq.

“The day he died was the day that he found out he was going to be a father,” Perez said.

An investigation by the Associated Press this year found that in some oil-rich states traffic fatalities have quadrupled in the past decade. In Southeast New Mexico, a coalition has formed a task force to address roadside deaths. A state representative is also pushing legislation that would fund highway improvements in oil-producing counties.

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