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A Wyoming County Predicts 'Total Economic Devastation' From Biden Leasing Ban

A sign in the Jonah Field advertises cheap rates at a deserted motel built for oil and gas workers.
A sign in the Jonah Field advertises cheap rates at a deserted motel built for oil and gas workers.

After 15 years working in western oil patches, Antonio Magana finally struck out on his own, starting a small oil and gas well servicing company.

Then the pandemic hit.

Demand tanked and production ground nearly to a halt here in Wyoming's Jonah Field. Magana and his skeleton staff are down to working just three days a week.

"Right now, not much going on, you know, we've been working little hours," Magana says. "A lot of people lost their jobs a month ago, a lot of people."

The Jonah was once one of the country's most prolific public lands gas fields. Locals boast proudly that this is where modern day fracking was born. A few years ago this local truck stop would have been humming.

Today, a lone semi is gassing up. The cafe is deserted. A frozen sign in the snow advertises a move-in special at the vacant motel. Even before the pandemic, there was a glut in natural gas on the market so companies were scaling back.

After Wednesday's announcement that the Biden administration is putting an indefinite pause on new leases on federal ground like this, Magana is worried that companies won't need contractors like him.

"I hope they continue producing gas, you know, because we need gas for heating," he says. "And people need work, especially here in Wyoming."

In a typical year, oil and gas pumped off of federal land sends hundreds of millions of dollars to state and local governments in the rural West, where the federal government often owns most of the land. And while largely expected here, Wednesday's news is stirring plenty of anxiety over the future.

Sublette County, Wyo., Commissioner Joel Bousman says the economic fallout from a ban on new oil and gas leases on federal land will be devastating to local services.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Sublette County, Wyo., Commissioner Joel Bousman says the economic fallout from a ban on new oil and gas leases on federal land will be devastating to local services.

While only 10% of the nation's oil and gas comes off federal land, in Wyoming, it's hugely flip-flopped. Ninety percent of all the natural gas here is mined with leases from underneath public land. The state has already shed an estimated 6,000 mining jobs in the past year. A recent University of Wyoming study forecasted that a federal leasing moratorium could cost local governments $300 million a year.

"We're looking at schools with no kids in them, teachers that don't have jobs because you can't hire teachers if you don't have kids to teach," says Joel Bousman, a commissioner in Sublette County. About 90% of his county's budget comes from production and other taxes off the Jonah Field.

Bousman contends President Biden's climate plan ignores communities like his.

"We're worried about total devastation of our economy in this county if this is truly an indication of the direction he wants to go," he says. "Which he has said it is."

But some here will tell you Wyoming has had years to prepare for the eventuality of fossil fuels going away and little has been done. Linda Baker is a teacher and longtime environmental activist in Pinedale, a town of 2,000 once infamous for its brown cloud from drilling obscuring the Wind River mountains. Baker says blame toward the feds is misguided; it's the companies, she says, that overproduced.

"It's uneconomical to drill right now," Baker says. "Oil and gas will cry bloody murder, but right now, they're not drilling, because they can't afford to."

Conservationists are also quick to point out that most of the Jonah Field is already leased anyway. Some companies in Western states are also holding on to existing leases and not even developing them. There were 21 drilling rigs statewide in Wyoming a year ago, now there are only six.

Even before the abrupt change in federal policy, local trucker Jake Dennis says he started trying to move his business away from the oil patch.

"There ain't nothin' to do, I mean, we could go over the road, but all you're doing is paying for fuel and a driver," Dennis says. "You can't even keep enough to keep the trucks going."

Down to only three truckers, from a high of 10 a year ago, Dennis Trucking is switching gears to logging. He says there's still some hauling work because of thinning and wildfire prevention going on on local U.S. Forest Service and private lands around Sublette County.

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