By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press
Top Wyoming officials heard both skepticism and encouragement Monday before voting to bid on a Connecticut-sized area of private land and mineral rights spanning three states.
The State Loan and Investment Board made up of Gov. Mark Gordon and the other four statewide elected officials faces a Wednesday deadline to bid on Houston-based Occidental Petroleum’s holdings along a wide stretch of the former Transcontinental Railroad route in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
After four hours of discussion and public comment, board members meeting by videoconference convened in executive session for further talks. They then voted to proceed with a bid that won’t be made public but with assurances of more public involvement and transparency should it emerge as a likely buyer, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
Residents and others participating online asked why the state should spend $1 billion or more in state savings on the property when the state faces huge budget deficits and pressure to slash spending.
By law, the board must keep the public informed about its business. But divulging too much information to the public, such as how much the state might be willing to bid on the property and why, could give competing bidders an advantage.
The proposal became public last winter. So far, state officials have erred too far on the side of secrecy, Cheyenne attorney and lobbyist Larry Wolfe told the board.
“We the public know nothing about what is being asked of the state in the bid document. We have not seen the solicitation. We don’t know any of the facts about this investment,” Wolfe said.
The meeting won’t be the last one if the state emerges as the top contender, Gordon reassured participants.
“There will be ample opportunity for people to continue to raise concerns,” he added.
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State officials disclosed for the first time that trona reserves account for most of the current value of the land and mineral rights. Wyoming is the leading state for mining trona, a mineral with uses ranging from detergents to glass manufacturing.
The lands could also generate revenue from cattle and sheep grazing, oil and gas drilling and wind and solar development. About 80% of the land for sale is mineral rights and 20% both surface and mineral rights, a separation called split estate common in the West.
Wolfe, however, questioned whether buying the land was a good idea as Wyoming faces a steep revenue decline due to the coronavirus and its dwindling coal, oil and natural gas industries.
“Maybe this is a little hasty. Maybe a lot hasty,” Wolfe said.
The U.S. trona industry faces competition from countries including China that U.S. industry officials say unfairly subsidize trona producers. A legislator from trona-mining hub Rock Springs speculated that buying the land and mineral rights could put political pressure on state officials.
“The temptation will be for the trona industry to come to the governor, the Legislature, the state treasurer, to say, ‘Hey, give us a break or we’re going to lay people off,’” said Republican Rep. Clark Stith, of Rock Springs.
Another state lawmaker, Republican Rep. Pat Sweeney, of Casper, said anything could happen in the future that could make it politicized.
In March, a veto by Gordon cut the Legislature largely out of direct involvement in the land deal. Yet Sweeney said he was comfortable with the process.
“That’s crazy to present your facts — relevant facts — to your competitive bidders. That’s nuts,” Sweeney said.
The deal characterized by state officials as potentially much more lucrative than the current 0.7% return on 10-year U.S. Treasuries also won praise from state Sen. Eli Bebout, a Republican from Riverton who said he had no questions about the details to ask board members.
“This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Bebout said.
The U.S. government granted Union Pacific Railroad as much as 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) of land in Wyoming and other Western states for every mile of track laid as an incentive to build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s.
The arrangement left Union Pacific with enormous land holdings interspersed with federal lands in a “checkerboard” pattern across a huge area of the West. Anadarko Petroleum bought the lands from Union Pacific and Occidental acquired them in a merger with Anadarko in 2019.
Wyoming’s potential purchase of land and mineral rights in Utah and Colorado could raise as-yet unexplored legal questions.