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Some towns are caught between old oil and gas drilling rules and new goals

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Biden administration is finalizing new rules that could dramatically limit how much new federal land is leased for oil and gas drilling. It's an issue that touches on a long-standing tension in the West - who gets to do what on large stretches of public lands? The changes could help areas trying to market access to the great outdoors, but some towns appear caught between new goals and old rules. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

CHARLIE GARRETT: I'll catch you guys.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's late afternoon in Farmington, N.M., and the sun is casting an orange glow on the sandstone cliffs where new mountain bike trails have been carved into the powdery dirt beneath.

CHARLIE: I've been riding since I was little, but, like, for the program, I've been riding since it started.

SIEGLER: Sixth-grader Charlie Garrett and her full suspension bike are gearing up for another class with FAST - Farmington Area Single Track.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIKE CHAINS TURNING)

SIEGLER: These middle-school girls are learning trail etiquette and practicing climbing. Demand for the nonprofit program has grown exponentially since it started a few years back.

AMY CONLEY: All right. Well, we'll climb up.

SIEGLER: Coach Amy Conley is thrilled to see all the newfound use of public lands that surround her hometown.

A CONLEY: Yeah. I mean, I've lived here my whole life, and my whole family has worked oil field. And now it's changing, and, you know, there's not as much oil field now as there used to be. So it's a lot different.

SIEGLER: The oil and gas fields built Farmington and for decades, helped power California. But the boom and bust cycles have driven a big push to diversify. Farmington is a city of 45,000 in rural Northwest New Mexico and is promoting its easy access to U.S. public lands.

A CONLEY: Good job.

SIEGLER: FAST's Chris Conley says the group wants to keep expanding and use more trails on federal land, but they keep running into bureaucratic red tape and fees.

CHRIS CONLEY: We're doing everything we can in our power to try and get kids outside, but we're met with opposition sometimes. So, you know, we're just doing what we can and trying to navigate it.

SIEGLER: A growing frustration these days is that the local Bureau of Land Management field office that controls the land outside Farmington only has about two staffers working on outdoor recreation. And there's only one ranger patrolling a vast territory the size of Connecticut. Ashley Korenblat says land managers for too long have focused too much on energy development.

ASHLEY KORENBLAT: A hundred years have gone by. Things have changed.

SIEGLER: She's a bike tour outfitter in Moab, Utah, who started a nonprofit group called Public Land Solutions that are trying to help Western towns promote their recreation access, and they're backing the Biden administration's new onshore oil and gas leasing regulations. These are a sweeping update to a 100-year-old law that dictates how and where the federal government leases public lands for drilling.

KORENBLAT: This is a long overdue update of our oil and gas rules that will make a huge difference on the ground for the future of so many communities.

SIEGLER: Korenblat says unrestricted leasing continues, even as the government can't afford to clean up and cap scores of abandoned oil wells that sometimes mar campgrounds or trails. The Biden administration's proposal would increase royalty rates and require companies to do things like put up more money before they drill to insure against things going wrong later. It could help towns like Farmington through an economic transition.

KORENBLAT: People like to blame it on regulation, but the reality is the market is changing for these communities. And if the regulations don't keep up with actual market needs, you create this strange place where the communities are not winning from either recreation or oil and gas.

SIEGLER: But those who still make their living in oil and gas say there's still a lot of untapped resources in the San Juan Basin around Farmington. George Sharpe is a manager with Merrion Oil & Gas, one of the first to drill around here.

GEORGE SHARPE: Man, you know, it's just such a slog to get through the BLM already, and all they're doing is making it harder.

SIEGLER: Merrion Oil's headquarters sit on a hill overlooking town and the Animas River running cappuccino colored after thunderstorms rolled through. There's a big photo of their first well drilled back in 1960 nicknamed Edna. It's still producing. Now, Sharpe thinks the timing of this new leasing rule is ironic. New Mexico is currently second only to Texas raking in record oil production revenues.

SHARPE: Let me read one of these things. This is...

SIEGLER: Reading the proposed rule off his computer, he says their stated goal is political.

SHARPE: And address the climate crisis by reducing fossil fuel production and consumption.

SIEGLER: As Sharpe says, he's no climate denier, but these rules go too far.

SHARPE: I believe climate change is happening, and I believe man is making an impact. I think we need to do something about it. I just think if you're trying to get off oil and gas, if you stop the production before you stop the consumption, that is a recipe for disaster.

SIEGLER: The BLM declined to be interviewed for this story, but this new rule follows a rocky couple of years that may demonstrate how hard it is to fulfill a campaign promise to wean the country off fossil fuels. President Biden initially took office and froze all new leasing for drilling on public land, but lawsuits forced the program to resume. And around Farmington, the proposed rule now is seen as a halfhearted attempt at a compromise.

NATE DUCKETT: My name is Nate Duckett. I am the mayor of the city of Farmington.

SIEGLER: Mayor Duckett has been trying to boost Farmington's outdoor recreation economy and lure more manufacturers here. But he doesn't like the Biden administration's rule either, pointing out a raft guide's salary is no substitute for the traditional jobs in fossil fuels.

DUCKETT: Oil and gas and coal have been paying for everybody for a very long time. The reason I ended up in Farmington was because my stepfather worked out at Navajo Mine. So this is really an accompany to. I mean, it's not necessarily a replacement of.

SIEGLER: But the mayor also knows the local BLM field office needs a lot more staff and money to help diversify Farmington's economy. At the nearby Glade Recreation Area, you can see all the different pressures on public land that the Biden administration is trying to navigate right now. An off-roader in a Jeep is spinning donuts on a dirt track.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR REVVING)

SIEGLER: Behind him are six giant, green oil wells. And then Doug Kennedy has just finished up a 13-mile run. He's guzzling water as an oil field worker drives past.

DOUG KENNEDY: About once a week, I'll have somebody in an oil field truck like this slow down and roll their window down and ask me if I need a drink of water.

SIEGLER: Kennedy loves the easy access to public land. If he could, he'd run a full marathon to the Colorado state line from here.

KENNEDY: I wish there was even more access.

SIEGLER: And better management, he says. The key debate as the Biden administration tries to overhaul the rules over who gets to do what on America's public lands.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Farmington, N.M.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.