March 21, 2012 at 6:17 PM CDT - Updated June 26 at 6:39 PM
BETSY BLANEY, Associated Press
MALJAMAR, N.M. (AP) — It's always busy at Linda's Grill at lunchtime as oil field workers from around the region fill the lone restaurant in Maljamar, a no-stoplight town of 38 in the middle of the oil-rich area.
On Wednesday some of the restaurant's eight tables were filled with a rare sight: men in suits and ties. They were from the White House and stopped for a meal before President Barack Obama's visit to New Mexico's petroleum fields outside of town later in the day.
Maljamar resident Bill Gideon, 64-year-old husband to the grill's namesake, sat there about an hour before grabbing a meal and going back to work. He owns L&B Trucking and his six trucks haul piping for drilling to oil rig sites all over the region. The economy is OK, he said, and people have jobs. But it could busier.
Companies have moved rig operations west because 'the permits weren't coming fast enough, it was slow," Gideon said.
His lunch companion, Wade Hood, is in the water delivery business, piping it to rig sites for use in hydraulic fracking. The slow permitting trickles back, he said.
"When they start slowing down the process, the economy goes down," Hood said.
The complaints about a slow permitting process were being echoed across the industry here as Obama was scheduled to step into solid Republican territory to visit oil fields on federal lands and tout the fact that domestic oil and gas production has increased each year he has been in office.
The visit was part of a three-state swing the president is making to defend his energy agenda in the face of rising gas prices. His first stop was to a solar panel plant in Nevada, then to the oil and gas fields in New Mexico and the site of a future oil pipeline in Oklahoma.
The White House said in a news release that the stop will "highlight the Administration's commitment to expanding domestic oil and gas production." Oil production is at an eight-year high and natural gas output is at an all-time high, it said.
Sam Cobb, the mayor of nearby Hobbs, said he was excited about the president's visit.
"We are anxious to show the president and his staff what we do in this part of the state, and we really want to be part of getting America energy independent," he said. "We want to show the president that we are ready, willing and able... and hope we can work with the federal government in reducing barriers to achieve (that) goal."
But Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said production could be even higher. And he was hoping that Obama might be announcing more funding for the Bureau of Land Management office in Carlsbad, which he says is unable to keep up with demand for the drilling permits needed to accelerate the development of federally owned oil and gas resources in the state, he said.
"We feel that if the administration wants to invest with a partner to create jobs and revenue, that they should invest in the BLM and the Carlsbad field office," Henke said.
The industry is also upset over the administration's consideration of listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species, which it fears could curtail development.
The listing of the lizard has been a hot-button issue for the industry, which is concerned it would mean curtailed development and job losses across the Permian Basin, which makes up a large chunk of New Mexico's oil and gas industry and accounts for more than two-thirds of Texas' total oil production.
Nearly one-third of the basin's 8.1 million acres is made up of New Mexico trust land. State officials said there are more than 6,000 oil and gas leases in the area and more than 70 active drilling rigs.
No decision has been made regarding the lizard, and the administration continues to work with the industry on the increasing production, said Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"As the president has made clear, we will continue to take steps to expand production in a responsible way," Fetcher said in a written statement.
Maljamar is about 280 miles southeast of Albuquerque near the Texas border.
According to the menu at Linda's Grill, "William Mitchell, president of Maljamar Oil & Gas Company, which brought the first oil well to southeastern New Mexico in 1926, reportedly named the town for his three children, Malcolm, Janet and Margaret."