By Tom Coulter, Wyoming Tribune Eagle via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — A lot has changed since Gov. Mark Gordon announced earlier this year that the state was exploring a deal to buy roughly a million acres of land in southern Wyoming from Occidental Petroleum Corporation.
Yet while the coronavirus has brought rapid changes to daily life in Wyoming — and put its main revenue streams in jeopardy — state leaders are still seriously considering the potential land purchase, which would also include about four million acres of mineral rights.
Discussions of the deal were forced “to take a back seat for a while” in the initial weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Gordon’s chief energy adviser, Randall Luthi. But the state has not lost sight of what Gordon called a potential “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” during his public announcement of the potential deal in February.
The governor has been talking to Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub on a weekly basis, and the two sides have reassured each other that interest remains in a potential deal.
State officials have also begun their search for an investment banker to determine the market value of the land and any accompanying assets it could bring to Wyoming. Luthi said he would like to see the state choose its banker by the end of April, though it could get done sooner.
The Wyoming Legislature would also have a role in any potential deal, though to what degree remains a question. After lawmakers approved a bill outlining a stringent process by which the State Loan and Investment Board could pursue the deal, Gordon vetoed it in late March, arguing the final version of the legislation was flawed.
“The end result is a vehicle so heavily laden with legislative baggage that the ability to conduct thorough and appropriate due diligence takes a back seat to mandated reports and recommendations,” Gordon said in a letter explaining his decision.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said in an interview Thursday he understood the governor’s decision. Harshman said he’s not currently involved in discussions on the land deal, adding his hope that some lawmakers will be involved as the state conducts its due diligence.
The Legislature would still have the chance to review any principle agreement to decide whether to fund the deal. With the Legislature already facing the likelihood of a special session in late May or early June to address the effects of COVID-19, it could have another one to consider a potential deal.
“It’s just difficult for me to imagine that the Legislature would be content not to have some kind of a session (if a deal is reached),” Luthi said.
In his veto letter, Gordon committed to following the bill’s transparency measures, including a requirement that public meetings be held within each area affected by the purchase. The land in the deal covers portions of Laramie, Albany, Lincoln, Uinta, Carbon and Sweetwater counties, with the majority of it in the state’s southwest region.
During the budget session that wrapped up last month, legislative leaders repeatedly mentioned the wealth of trona deposits in southwestern Wyoming as one of the most enticing parts of the potential deal. Other aspects, like land management, hunting opportunities and other mineral reserves are also driving the state’s interest in the deal.