Published June 12, 2008
This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News through the next several weeks, looking first at the country's energy challenges.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — With the average cost of diesel fuel edging toward $5 per gallon, one California county is trying to protect itself from a growing rash of diesel thefts.
In just the past few months, Kern County, Calif., has lost more than $280,000 worth of fuel to thieves, said police, although the problem is not exclusive to the area.
Kern County Detective Gary William called this an epidemic that won't be getting better anytime soon. "I attribute it to the economy; I attribute it to the upswing of the price of fuel," he said.
Police in Kern County, whose crops include potatoes and oranges, have set up a task force to combat the problem and are encouraging farmers and growers to report any thefts.
Farmer Pete Belluomini said crooks case farms in this isolated community, looking for diesel-fueled machinery.
He said an organized thief would return at night with a small pump and fill tanks stashed in a trailer or truck, making off with hundreds of gallons at a time.
"There's been times when we've lost as many as 1,000 gallons a night. In today's prices, you're talking — you can lose $4,000 real fast," Belluomini said.
Surveillance video from one farm shows how burglars broke into diesel pipes and siphoned off several gallons of gas. The fuel is then resold on the black-market to cash-strapped truckers who pay $200 to fill a tank that normally would cost the driver $500.
Williams said farmers — also feeling the pinch of rising fuel costs — are coming up with increasingly extreme methods to protect their fuel.
"I talked to a farmer. He's actually resorted to sabotaging his tanks in an effort to keep people away from them. He's dug trenches, he's set up spikes, he's done just about everything out there short of spending the night out there with a shotgun in his hand to protect his livelihood," Williams said.
It appears farmers aren't the only target of these savvy thieves. Recently an Ohio U-Haul was hit, as was an auto body shop in Detroit.
If the situation doesn't improve, fuel thefts may have a knock-on affect on consumers: Higher prices for farmers will mean higher prices for consumers.
But for now, it is the farmers who are feeling the blow.
"We have to take what the market will give us," Belluomini said. "It just reduces the chance that we have to make a profit at the end of the season."
Chris Spinder and Grace Cutler contributed to this report.