If the Legislature gives its initial approval, a proposed deal to buy 1 million acres and 4 million acres of mineral rights will test a numbers-minded governor as he negotiates with both a multinational energy corporation and political factions at home.
Gov. Mark Gordon, the former state treasurer who once served on the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City board, told WyoFile in an exclusive interview Thursday he will approach the deal as a sober-minded investor. The essential question is whether there will be a good return on what promises to be a massive investment of public funds:
“This has to be a net positive for the state,” Gordon said. The executive branch will approach the deal with core financial questions in mind, the governor said.
“What does dedicating a portion of any of our trust funds to this land asset mean?” he asked. “What’s the trade-off between income and invested earnings we would get off this versus whatever [other investments] we have?”
Still, the historic nature of the proposal, which one lawmaker described as the biggest government land purchase since the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, is not lost on the governor.
“I’m kind of a number guys,” he said. “So, I try to say ‘that’d be really cool, but what’s the cost going to be?’”
As rumors of the deal buzzed around the state capitol this week, some were skeptical Gordon’s administration could — or should — pull the deal off.
“That’s a tough one,” said Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell). “I’m obviously worried about how much money and where are we going to get it. I think we all are,” he said.
Today, the land clustered around the Union Pacific railroad stretching the length of southern Wyoming is owned by Occidental Petroleum, which acquired it by purchasing Anadarko Petroleum in August 2019.
The land has been in private hands since the U.S. government awarded it to Union Pacific as an incentive for railroad building beginning in 1862. The government gave every other 640-acre section for 20 miles on either side of the track to the rail company, plus mineral rights. The resulting checkerboard land pattern has bedeviled western land users — from hunters to hikers to oil-and-gas developers — ever since.
The public owning the land brings an “intangible” value of Wyoming choosing its own destiny for the areas in question, Gordon said.
“The intangible there is that instead of [Occidental] saying ‘here’s what we’re going to — do deal with it,’” Gordon said, “we can think a little more strategically … and be able to balance all of those competing resources equally.
“I don’t know what the return on that is,” he continued, “but in terms of being able to talk about … migration corridors and wildlife herds and opportunities for outdoor recreation and places that can be open to renewables, all that sort of stuff … it’s a real opportunity to think big.”
Occidental completed its acquisition of Anadarko in August. Soon after that purchase, Occidental flipped a liquefied natural gas plant and natural gas fields in Mozambique to a French corporation for $3.9 billion.
“That sent the message they were interested in selling off assets,” said Gordon’s energy policy advisor Randall Luthi. Conversations with the company accelerated, leading to the involvement of the Legislature, Gordon said.
Occidental has been feeling some heat since it completed its Anadarko takeover. The acquisition has drawn criticism for the amount of debt the company took on to complete the purchase. Critics include the famed investor Carl Icahn, who owns 2.5% of Occidental.
There’s still a stretch of road between the announcement last week and the day when Wyoming might own the assets, but it’s not that long. The bills that authorize the executive branch to explore the purchase only gives it the rest of 2020 to act. The company has expressed an interest in reaching a quick deal, potentially as soon as this summer, according to remarks officials made at the Feb. 17 announcement.
Then there’s the price. The public doesn’t know, and officials who do have a sense of it aren’t sharing that information yet. There are no estimates even as both the House and Senate prepare to debate legislation that authorizes the state to spend a large portion of its savings funds.
Gordon hasn’t locked in a final price yet, he said.
One thing is certain: the purchase would strike deep into the state’s savings accounts that the Legislature has been relying on to cover the cost of government.
The state’s bargaining ability will suffer if a potential price is publicly debated, Gordon argued. “I know that [cost] is kind of the first question on people’s mind,” he said.
Out-of-state consultants will likely evaluate the deal for Wyoming, Gordon said.
There may be reasons why it’s uncommon for modern governments to make big land buys.
The politics, for one: Proponents of the deal — which includes leading lawmakers — will have to convince the Legislature to spend down savings they’ve been relying on for some time. Conservatives are already expressing doubt at the state spending more money to control more land.
In short, convincing a democracy to buy a huge chunk of land involves a lot more transparency, debate and political risk than convincing a corporate board of directors.
Gordon questioned whether Occidental itself was wholly aware of the distinction. “This is all going to be subject to more public scrutiny than perhaps they would feel comfortable with,” he said. “So somehow finding that equilibrium where people feel well enough informed and we don’t end up showing all our cards … stuff like that is obviously the challenge.”
As currently written, the bill would give lawmakers 60 days to act after Gordon and the other four statewide elected officials settle on a deal and inform the Legislature.
Gordon anticipates competition for the property, he said. “I’m certain that they’ve had offers on parts and pieces,” he said. Wyoming’s advantage is it could buy the whole property. He hopes the state will avoid a bidding war and that the company will be “straightforward,” given the size of the transaction, he said: “It’s not haggling over a rug or something.”
Occidental Petroleum also owns mineral assets in the Powder River Basin. “The Governor recognizes that [Occidental] wants to maintain a positive relationship with the state,” Gordon’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman wrote to WyoFile in a follow up email. “He was acknowledging that negotiating in a straightforward manner is a good way for the company to continue that relationship.”
If residents learning of the plan have questions, Gordon assures them that he does too, he said. The biggest one is whether the investment will make money, he said.
Land is a valuable investment in the long term, he said. “We always talk about inflation proofing, and we never do it,” Gordon said. “Land is one of the best inflation hedges you can ever have. They just aren’t making any more land. ”
What’s under the land and what the state could do with it have yet to be evaluated, Gordon said. One significant value could come from trona deposits. The deal under consideration includes a large concentration of surface ownership and mineral rights in Sweetwater County. That portion of land aligns with the state’s trona deposits, said Travis Deti, director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
Trona mining companies in his association have been frustrated by checkerboard land patterns, he said. Some mining companies were apprehensive over Occidental’s attempts to shed assets and who might end up owning the trona land, Deti said.
“We’d rather deal with the state,” Deti said.
Early critics of the land purchase worry that the state would be entering into the oil-and-gas business.
“This is not a traditional role that States perform,” Larry Wolfe, a longtime energy lobbyist who is now retired, wrote in comments to lawmakers. “They don’t operate large complex businesses that are subject to the vagaries of the international and national petroleum and natural gas markets.”
Gordon pushed back against the suggestion. “This is not our opportunity to build a state enterprise or anything like that,” he said. The state would merely own and lease the land, the same way it owns 3.5 million surface acres and 3.9 million mineral acres around the state today, he said.
“We already manage a lot of state land,” Gordon said. “If we do it right or wrong I’m sure that everybody has an opinion on that, but I think that we tend to do a pretty good job.”
The Legislature has yet to debate the bills in the House and Senate. Lawmakers will have to do so this coming week.
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