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In a typical year, oil and gas pumped off federal land sends hundreds of millions of dollars to state and local governments in the rural West, where the federal government owns most of that land. So the Biden administration's new pause on oil and gas leasing on federal property is stirring up a lot of anxiety in those states. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from a gas field near Pinedale, Wyo.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: After 15 years working in the oil patch, Antonio Magana finally struck out on his own, starting a small oil and gas servicing company. Then the pandemic hit. Demand tanked. And production ground nearly to a halt here in Wyoming's Jonah Field.
ANTONIO MAGANA: Right now, it's not much going on, you know? We've been working little hours. A lot of people lost their jobs, like, a month ago, like, a lot of people.
SIEGLER: 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 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. And now with the Biden administration's pause on new leases on federal ground like this, Magana is worried that companies won't need contractors like him.
MAGANA: Well, I hope they continue producing gas, you know, because we need gas for heating and everything. And people need to work, especially here in Wyoming.
SIEGLER: While only 10% of the nation's oil and gas comes off federal land, in Wyoming, it's hugely flipflopped. 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.
JOEL BOUSMAN: We're looking at schools with no kids in them, empty classrooms, teachers that don't have jobs because you can't hire teachers if you don't have kids to teach.
SIEGLER: Joel Bousman is a commissioner in Sublette County. Almost all of its budget comes from taxes off the Jonah Field. He says President Biden's climate plan ignores communities like his.
BOUSMAN: 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, which he has said it is.
SIEGLER: 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 longtime environmental activist in Pinedale, a town of 2,000, once infamous for its brown cloud from drilling obscuring the Wind River mountains. She says blame toward the feds is misguided. It's the companies, she says, that overproduced.
LINDA BAKER: You know, it's uneconomical to drill right now. So - you know, oil and gas will cry bloody murder. But right now, they're not drilling because they can't afford to.
SIEGLER: Environmentalists are also quick to point out that most of the Jonah Field is already leased. And many companies in Western states are holding onto their existing leases and not even developing them. There were 21 drilling rigs statewide a year ago. Now there's only six. Even before the abrupt change in federal policy, trucker Jake Dennis says he started moving his business away from the oil patch.
JAKE DENNIS: There ain't nothing to do. I mean, we could go over the road. But all you're doing is paying for fuel and a driver that - you can't even keep enough to keep the trucks going.
SIEGLER: He's down to only three truckers from a high of 10 a year ago. They're switching gears to logging. There's still some work doing thinning and wildfire prevention for the U.S. Forest Service.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Pinedale, Wyo.
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