Gordon, top lawmakers eye massive land purchase in southern Wyoming

CHEYENNE — In what could be a historic step for Wyoming, Gov. Mark Gordon and several top lawmakers announced Monday the state will explore the possibility of buying a million acres of land owned by Occidental Petroleum Corporation in southern Wyoming.

Occidental acquired the parcels after merging with the original owner of the land, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, last August. Much of the land lies along the Union Pacific Railroad, which runs across all of southern Wyoming.

The governor discussed the possible purchase in a news conference Monday afternoon that featured State Treasurer Curt Meier, State Auditor Kristi Racines and top lawmakers from both chambers.

“Obviously, Wyoming is facing some really large challenges,” Gordon said. “It takes an opportunity that rises from time to time to make big decisions for the state going forward.”

The potential purchase, which Gordon said has been in the works for about six months, is viewed as part of an ongoing effort in the Legislature to address the state’s projected structural revenue deficit in coming years.

“As the governor mentioned in his opening comments, we have some challenges – not that this would be the solution, but this would be maybe part of closing some of the gaps in funding,” House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said during the news conference.

The state would pay for the purchase through either its “rainy-day” saving account, its Permanent Mineral Trust Fund or the Common School Account within the Permanent Land Fund. However, both the price of the land and the potential economic boost it could bring the state remain unclear.

The state has notified Occidental of its interest in the land, which the company has been aiming to sell since its acquisition of Anadarko. When contacted by a reporter about the negotiations, a spokeswoman for Occidental declined to comment.

The land owned by Occidental follows the “checkerboard” pattern of the original land parcels that were granted to Union Pacific in the 19th century. If purchased by the state, the land would offer a wide range of uses, as noted by Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, during the news conference.

“This parcel includes minerals, grazing lands, all kinds of lands,” Perkins said. “Basically, it’s every other section within miles of the original Transcontinental Railroad and a few other places. This is an opportunity we saw to diversify from investing in Wall Street to investing back into the lands of Wyoming.”

The potential purchase would also bring the state 4 million acres worth of mineral rights. Perkins mentioned the possibility of the state looking at land swaps to consolidate some of the areas along the railroad.

“When you start to match those with federal lands, it would provide significant public access to lands that otherwise may not have been available before,” Perkins said. “We’ll have all the opportunities that any landowner would have.”

With the Legislature a week into its five-week budget session, two bills –Senate File 138 and House Bill 249 – have been introduced that would give the state the authority it needs to pursue such a purchase. Those proposals would allow the State Loan and Investment Board to make such a purchase, though the board would still have to report back to the Legislature at least 60 days before entering an agreement.

Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the legislation is “a little bit of (putting) the cart before the horse” to give the State Loan and Investment Board the authority it needs to get the deal done. Nicholas said Occidental wants to have the property sold “by the middle of this summer or the end of the year.”

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the purchase could be a real “game changer.”

“I’ve been doing this for 28 years now, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Bebout said.

The responsibility to negotiate the purchase would be left to the State Loan and Investment Board, comprised of the state’s top five elected officials. As the Legislature moves forward, another proposal, House Bill 222, would exempt that board from the Public Meetings Act when only convening for educational or training purposes, as it probably would for such a purchase. The board would still have to meet publicly when taking action on such agreements.

Meier noted it would take a while to acquire the assets, a point the governor emphasized during the news conference.

“There’s a real opportunity here that is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gordon said.

Depending on what happens with SF 138 and HB 249, Harshman noted the Legislature could hold a special session sometime later this year to finalize the process.