SHERIDAN — A bill that exempts joint powers entities from regulations will facilitate long-term plans for natural gas in the Tongue River Valley, according to Ranchester Mayor Peter Clark.

“It’s one of those areas that needed to be clarified in the state statutes,” Clark said. “[It] allows joint powers boards to be exempt from Public Service Commission regulations to sell outside the communities into the county, which is an important part of our strategy in the long run. “

Clark added that the bill would have important, immediate impacts in other parts of the state. “Thirty-two communities in the state don’t have access to natural gas right now,” Clark said.

The bill Gov. Matt Mead signed into law earlier this week underwent amendments during the legislative process, which Clark said may require some additional clarifications.

“We think everything is in there that allows us to do this,” Clark said. “But there has been some dispute about how the language is interpreted because there are conflicting statutes.”

Clark stressed, however, that the priority of the Tongue River Valley Joint Powers Board is establishing a natural gas pipeline in Ranchester and Dayton. The benefits of the recent bill may not be felt for five or ten years, Clark noted.

“Our project right now is anchored by the two towns,” Clark said. “When we’re up and running with that, it might be awhile before we can sell outside the limits of Ranchester and Dayton.”

The next step toward completing that goal, Clark said, will be securing $4 million in funding from a USDA loan. Chief among the 23 conditions the TRVJPB has to meet to secure that loan is collecting letters of intent from residents and businesses interested in connecting to the pipeline once it is built. Clark said the TRVJPB has far exceeded the USDA’s most recent requirement, which he said called for about 240 residential letters and 40 commercial letters.

“We ended up with 400 residential and something like 60 commercial letters,” Clark said. “So, they were satisfied we had more than enough potential subscribers.”

Completing the project will also require the TRVJPB find interim funding; the USDA does not fund construction projects, so the agency will not pay for the pipeline until it has been completed. Once the pipeline has been built according to the USDA’s specifications, the agency will pay off the interim financing.

Clark said he expects plans for the engineering will be completed and reviewed by the USDA by the end of March. Engineering bids need to be approved by the USDA by June, and Clark estimated that once the bids were awarded, construction would take about 18 months and could be finished by December 2020.