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Wyoming County Faces Challenges Amid The Crash Of The Crude Oil Industry


The U.S. is the world's largest producer of crude oil, but the industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Demand for oil has plummeted, along with prices, and that's been devastating for American cities and states that depend on oil revenue. Cooper McKim of Wyoming Public Radio reports.

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: The sun is beating down on a nearly empty gravel plot in the small city of Douglas. Just a few weeks ago, trailers owned by oil field and pipeline workers lined this man camp, says Converse County Commissioner Robert Short.

ROBERT SHORT: We would normally see families and dogs and, you know, the normal life of an American human going on here. But now it's kind of like a ghost town.

MCKIM: Converse County is the No. 1 producer of crude oil in Wyoming. The county relies on oil and gas for about 70% of its annual revenue. But with the oil price collapse, the majority of rigs have disappeared, leaving at least 1,700 oil field workers without a job in Wyoming. Usually, Short says, trailers hauling water or sand for fracking fill up the nearby highway. But...

SHORT: Today, zero.

MCKIM: This drop in oil field activity has been hard on local businesses. Short owns several himself. He's already had to lay off 13 employees at his hotel restaurant. And it's not just him. As oil prices fall...

SHORT: So does all of the foundation for the economics in this small community.

MCKIM: Landlords report tenants are leaving unannounced. Hotels are seeing crews up and leave overnight. Several report occupancy at below half when it was full just a couple months ago. It's also hitting mechanics like Phad Alexander, the owner of Bud's Field Service & Truck Repair.

PHAD ALEXANDER: Yeah. About five weeks ago, it was just like somebody flipped the switch, and the phone never rang.

MCKIM: Most of his business came from the oil field, but his large, open-air shop is now empty, save for one orange semitrailer cab left behind for maintenance.

ALEXANDER: We had some of our longtime customers - they stopped in here one last time and said, we're going home; we're going to park the truck. And we had customers that were staying here from all over the United States, and they're just done.

MCKIM: Alexander has already had to lay off the only two employees he had. The shop did qualify for a federal relief loan, but there's not too much work to be done anymore.

So what does that mean for your bottom line?

ALEXANDER: There's no bottom to it right now. I mean, we're - I don't know. We probably did 10- to $20,000 a week, and we're lucky to do 2-, $300 a week now.

MCKIM: Alexander is figuring out how to afford a preexisting loan on his shop and another for a recently purchased service truck. 2019 was actually a banner year financially for Converse County. So it was jarring to county Commissioner Jim Willox that things fell off a cliff basically overnight, even though he's used to the booms and busts of the oil industry.

JIM WILLOX: Have we weathered them here in Wyoming in Converse County before? Absolutely. But I don't know if we have weathered a total drawback like this one.

MCKIM: To tighten its belt, the county has placed a freeze on hiring, paused construction of new courtrooms and expects budget cuts to come. For now, it's a waiting game to see how much money the county will receive through taxes and federal aid and how long it will take for the industry it depends on to rebound.

For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim in Douglas, Wyo.

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

Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and now Wyoming. In South Carolina, he covered recovery efforts from a devastating flood in 2015. Throughout his time, he produced breaking news segments and short features for national NPR. Cooper recently graduated from Tufts University with degrees in Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.