Representatives and Senators crowd the House floor on the first day of the 2020 Legislative session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFIle)

Bills authorizing Gov. Mark Gordon’s administration to pursue the purchase of 1 million acres of land and 4 million acres of mineral rights from Occidental Petroleum passed initial votes in both chambers this week. 

By Thursday morning, both the House and Senate had amended and advanced House Bill 294 and Senate File 138 — both measures Gordon brought to the Legislature — through two votes. There was scattered skepticism in the House, while outspoken supporters faced little opposition in the Senate. 

Even as the bills advanced, divisions emerged among politicos jostling for control over the purchasing process and even the eventual management of the lands in question. House lawmakers modified the bills to ensure the land would be managed under multiple-use principles, while the state treasurer’s office called for maximizing the land’s revenue potential. 

Most of the 90 legislators debating the bills did so with little or no knowledge of key information. The likely price and income potential of the land are known only to a select few players, if anyone. This concerned skeptics. 

“We should be asking questions,” Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), who voted against the bill on its first vote, said. “The idea that there’s no answer to them I find that very troubling.”

Gov. Mark Gordon hands Senate President Drew Perkins and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman the original flags that flew over House and Senate chambers before the Capitol’s renovation on the first day of the 2020 legislative session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Proponents of the bills called them the first step in a long vetting process. 

With few confirmed facts on hand, proponents dripped out clues and information other lawmakers complained they couldn’t verify.  

“It’s a leap of faith on my part,” Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) said when the House Appropriations Committee considered the bill on Monday night. Though there were estimates of land values and potential investment returns put out there, he said, but “I don’t have that information.” 

Lawmakers on Wednesday also blocked an attempt to give the public a voice in the process. House Speaker Pro Tempore Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) brought an amendment that would have required the state’s top officials to hold a public meeting in each county where land was under consideration — Laramie, Albany, Carbon, Sweetwater and Uinta. The chamber voted against the amendment. Sommers previously called the lack of public access “a glaring omission” in the proposed process.

More than $1 billion

In the House debate, conservative lawmakers asked proponents of pursuing the purchase for a prospective price, even if it was just a “range” or a “ballpark.” 

“I’ve heard everything from $400 million to $2 billion,” Gray said, “from pretty good sources actually.” 

“I’ve heard that same range,” Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said in response. Harshman did not know the price, he said. 

Officials gave several indications they consider the potential cost to be more than $1 billion. 

One such signal came when the House stripped language from the original bill that would have used the Legislature’s savings account, nicknamed the ‘rainy day fund,’ to pay for much of the purchase. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) suggested that funding structure would draw the rainy day fund’s balance down too far. 

“We’d be approaching a $500 million [balance] if this sale went through,” Nicholas said.

Including the next two years of spending, the rainy day fund’s balance is at $1.3 billion. To deplete it to $500 million, the state would have to spend $800 million on the land purchase. The bill’s original language allowed the state to use the rainy day fund for 75% of the purchase price. If Nicholas’ estimate is accurate, the cost for the land would equate to more than $1 billion. 

In an interview on Monday, Harshman cautioned against trying to read into what the price could be before the state appraises the property. 

“I don’t think anybody knows any of this,” he said, “I think you’ve got to go through this due diligence process. We’re going to turn this over to the executive branch and they’re going to go to work on it.”

For the first time, Nicholas also offered a glimpse at what officials think the payoff might be. Early revenue estimates from the land ranged between $130 million and $150 million a year, Nicholas said at the Appropriations Committee meeting on Monday. 

The next day, he told the House the numbers suggest a good deal for the state. “On its face it looks like this land will pay for itself,” he said. “If the original numbers that were bounced around were accurate.”

Who knew what, when

Occidental had approached Wyoming, Nicholas told the House. “They came to us and the reason they came to us was because … they want to sell it all in one piece,” he said. Occidental’s board preferred a buyer with an “ethic” for the land, he said. 

“They know the state of Wyoming as an entity we’ll treat it properly, we’ll have an environmental ethic if you will on how to treat this land,” Nicholas said.

Gordon told WyoFile he first began speaking with Occidental at a carbon capture event in Jackson. The event was in May, Gordon’s spokesperson said last week. 

On Feb. 17, when Gordon first went public with the idea of buying the land, Harshman, Nicholas, Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) joined him at the press conference. State Treasurer Curt Meier and state auditor Kristi Racines were also present. 

Despite the appearance of unity, interviews reveal that some supporters of the project learned of it late. “I kinda found out about this when you did,” Harshman told WyoFile. He’d previously told reporters he and others “were hearing conversations” soon after Gordon’s election.

Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) speaks to reporters on the first day of the 2018 session.

“I heard people, citizens, talking about it,” he said on Monday.

The treasurer had also been kept in the dark, he told WyoFile. “The governor didn’t reach out to me on this one until maybe about 10 days ago,” Meier said. “This [bill] was already printed before we actually got to talk about any proposed details at all,” he said. 

Gordon, Nicholas and Bebout were the “major players” on this, Meier said. “We’re all playing catch up,” he added. 

On the House floor, Nicholas described being part of a small working group created by Gordon. “That group has sat down and gone through and created dozens of pages of lists of what we have to do,” he said. 

The group is in the process of drafting a request for proposals to hire an investment bank to conduct an appraisal of the land, Nicholas said. The bill drafted by the House appropriates money for that appraisal. 

Meier put that cost alone — paid regardless of whether a purchase is pursued — at $8 million to $10 million. 

Fear of mysterious competition

Nicholas warned the House chamber that if the state doesn’t buy the land, someone else might. 

Five to 10 “serious entities” have looked at the offered land, Nicholas said. “Think about who might be purchasing this besides the state of Wyoming,” the Cheyenne Republican warned his colleagues. It could be “people who would chop it up and sell it,” Nicholas said, or “people who tie up this property so it never gets developed.” 

A map of 1 million acres of surface land (in pink) and 4 million mineral acres (in blue) the state’s top officials want to buy from Occidental Petroleum. The map was provided to WyoFile by the governor’s office.

Nicholas wasn’t able to elaborate on the entities’ identities, he wrote in a follow up email to WyoFile. “What I have heard is at least 3rd or 4th hand,” Nicholas wrote. “No real details and not sure of the source.”

Fear of who might buy the land if Wyoming doesn’t, however, reverberated through the capitol. “Would you like it to be a foreign corporation?” Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) asked his chamber on Tuesday. “Would you like it to be a big multinational? Who do you want to own land within our borders?”

Occidental is considered to be a company under some distress, and one seeking to make a deal quickly to offload the assets. “I would anticipate there would be competition,” Gordon told WyoFile last week. 


It could be a year before Wyoming acquires the land, and even proponents say there’s a lot stacked against success. That hasn’t stopped factions  within Wyoming’s government from maneuvering to put their stamp on the process.

The House’s rewrite was significant enough to necessitate the drafting of a substitute bill. In addition to removing the use of the rainy day fund, the new bill offers the opportunity for the state to borrow some of the money through issuing bonds. It also adds more lawmakers as “liaisons” to the State Lands and Investment Board. That body is made up of Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials and under the proposed legislation will conduct much of the deliberation over the purchase.

The new House bill requires the Legislature to approve any agreement with Occidental. On Wednesday, Sommers successfully brought an amendment to require an affirmative vote by the Legislature in the House bill. The original bills gave the Legislature 60 days to act but did not require it to convene. 

The changes were strong enough to prompt Gordon’s energy advisor, Randall Luthi, to call for legislative restraint. Luthi asked House Appropriations lawmakers not to “unnecessarily tie the hands of the governor.”

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Debates between the branches weren’t the only ones. 

On Wednesday, Bebout brought amendments to the Senate bill that mimicked the House’s work in some ways but deviated in others. The Senate kept the rainy day fund in the bill as a primary mechanism to make the purchase.

Bebout is skeptical of taking out bonds for the purchase, he said, and prefers to spend out of the rainy day fund. “It’s hard for me to borrow when we have money,” he said. Though House lawmakers worried about draining down the savings account, Bebout said it has also become a crutch. The ability to float on the savings has kept the state from choosing between budget cuts or tax increases, he said. 

It would be better to invest the money in land and force a choice, he said. “At some point in time you have to make a decision,” Bebout said. 

But the Senate’s chief sponsor of the bill most of all wanted to avoid getting bogged down in the details: “The important thing is to move something ahead,” Bebout said. 

Multiple use?

While the chambers debated, the treasurer’s office worried about losing control over something pitched as an “investment.” 

“The only duty I had in the first bill was to write the check,” Meier told WyoFile. 

Even the new bill, however, raised concerns. Deputy Treasurer Dawn Williams told the House Appropriations Committee she worried the agency was cut out. Her office was “very interested in a bill that says ‘investment of state funds’ and then we don’t see ourselves in it much,” she said. 

House lawmakers want the bill to specify the lands will be managed by the Office of State Lands and Investments, the agency that manages the state’s existing lands. They also added language to specify that the new lands would be managed the same as school trust lands. 

A GoogleEarth view of landscape near Anadarko checkerboard holdings west of Rawlins.

“Categorizing them as state school trust land kind of lets people know how they’ll be used,” Harshman told WyoFile. The language would allow the public to feel more confident they won’t be shut out of the new land, he said. The House pounded home the idea by adding a line about managing the lands for “multiple use.” 

Officials in the treasurer’s office believe their agency is better equipped to treat the land as an investment and maximize revenues from it. 

“The [Office of State Lands] hasn’t shown the propensity to be that effective in getting the revenue off of stuff,” Meier said. 

Too rich? 

Despite the doubts and divisions, most lawmakers appear to support passing the bills. Many touted the historic potential of the deal and worried about letting it go by without at least a look. 

Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) a former history teacher, talked about the 1867 purchase of Alaska. Senate President Perkins has said Wyoming completing the deal would mark the biggest government land purchase since that historic buy. At the time, U.S. Secretary of the Interior William Seward was mocked for pursuing the purchase, Wasserburger told his colleagues. 

“It was called Seward’s folly or Seward’s icebox,” he said. Today, Alaska has a mineral trust fund that dwarfs Wyoming’s, he noted. “Did that [purchase] pay off? Yes it did.” 

A rancher in Wasserburger’s district told him, “‘the only land deal I ever regretted was the one I didn’t buy,’” he said.

Such sentiments concern skeptics of the deal. In the House, Gray worried about an “irrational exuberance” for the deal building up, he said, making it difficult to walk away if the price isn’t right.

Others said they will proceed with caution.

“We’ve all heard a lot of concerns,” Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said during Senate debate, “from our constituents around the state, from other legislators.” 

The Legislature should let the governor’s office pursue the deal and see what he comes back with, Rothfuss said, echoing the sentiments of many. “Then see,” he said, “if it’s a benefit for the people of the state or see if it’s something that’s too rich for us, too risky for us.”

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. this article is important–thanks andrew and wyo files. just wrote my teton rep, and would have posted it here, but it is in computer land (where can you read what one writes to officials when using their official site?). great comments.

  2. There seems to be more questions than answers.
    The suggestion to quickly close a deal and buy the land because “someone else might “is hardly a motivation to commit to a transaction of this magnitude especially with the facts being in short supply.
    Where is the transparency ?

  3. I would hope our elected officials would view this “deal” with Occidental with a jaundiced eye. The Two Elk debacle should have.been a lesson in meticulous vigilance.

  4. Based on the limited information available, I would support this project… but

    There seems to be no shortage of corruption and self-dealing in politics these days. In a project of this size, there are going to be numerous opportunities for legislators and other insiders to line their own pockets and enrich their friends… through ‘finders’ fees, payoffs and kickbacks, land trades and insider sales, sweetheart contracts, etc….

    I think the citizens of this State should require the involvement of a nationally-recognized accounting firm to audit every step and transaction of acquisition and operation of this project… A State web-site devoted only to this project – purchases, proposed sales, income per lease, etc… would help keep the public informed.

    I am under no illusions that we would be able to stop all of the insider profiting – but we should at least try to make it harder for them…

    1. absolutely and now they have a brick and mortar bitcoin and blockchain to hide any o their shady deals and they make it look all legal. ask why the current occupant in the governors mansion is so eager to buy this property from a rapidly declining oil company using the states resources. In the past these clowns were busy selling off state school sections for cheap and reselling them.

      Mr bebout is all in on this move and we all need to stop this crime. the state legislators seems unable to clean up their own mess and seems happy to sacrifice the people of thermopolises drinking water.
      How low can they go? call these jerks outl

  5. It is curious that this bill came to the legislative body so late in the session. With only six more days left in this budget session it is highly unlikely that this proposal will make it to the governors desk by the close of the session. Without a comprehensive study and public input this bill does nothing but question the lack of transparency in parts of the governing body.

  6. The problem is complexity. And government getting into a tricky / risky business that is better understood and managed by business. And even they are having trouble in this environment.

    Good Luck!

  7. Based on an article in the Casper Star-Tribune and on information from Sierra Club, I wrote to Drew Perkins and Steve Harshman, both from my district, to oppose this bill. Drew Perkins got back to me with some cogent arguments to continue considering the bill. This WyoFile article is the first place I have seen an in-depth discussion of this. There is still a lot of information that we don’t have and the legislators don’t have, which would be necessary to make an informed decision. I hope this information will be available and be published before any decision is made.

  8. I have a question regarding the map. It looks like some of the mineral rights are in UT and CO. Are these part of the purchase, can one State Government purchase mineral rights in another State? Where the mineral rights are the the only asset purchased, I believe the surface owners only have to allow access to those studying the potential of the minerals. This in turn is another expense of the purchase of the land and the mineral rights after the fact,, negotiating contracts with firms who wish to explore the feasibility of the development of the minerals. Lots of questions to be considered.

    I hope the bill allows for a sub committee composed of representatives from the executive branch, the legislature, and the general public, to research the purchase of land by doing the feasibility study as to whether the purchase price will justify the return on the investment within a certain time period, addressing access issues and the means by which the land will be purchased. The bill will have to allow funds for the expenses of this committee. Once the study is complete and the details of the purchase contract are known, and the pros and cons of the possible alternatives for means by which the State could purchase the assets established, then the legislature should meet in special session to deal with this issue only to make a decision on the purchase.

  9. Are the current owners paying taxes? If so, Wyoming loses the tax revenue and either has to re-sell development rights or invest state money in development to re-coup the outlay. “Foreign” ownership is a matter of semantics; are the present owners headquartered in Wyoming?

  10. “Categorizing them as state school trust land kind of lets people know how they’ll be used,” Harshman told WyoFile. One must assume that means no overnight camping or open fires.

  11. This becomes more of a game of smoke-and-mirrors as it progresses. I suspect if it goes through, people will come to regret it. My trust in state government is very low.

  12. Are these the “checkerboard” sections granted by the federal government to the original Union Pacific Railroad under the Pacific Railway Act? If so, what will be the terms of access over the adjoining sections? Presumably, some are still held by the federal government, but others were likely passed to private landowners under the various homestead laws (1862-1933). Land is of little value if one can’t gain access across the corners. Just remember the “corners” legislation needed by the trona companies holding federal leases back in the 1970s when the UP refused their access across the corners UNDERGROUND.

    1. Correct Mr. Roberts…I believe eliminating or significantly reducing the “checkerboard” would / will be a key element to making this a rational investment for the State.

      Under “normal circumstances” this would be a huge, complex task. Perhaps with Wyoming’s political standing with the current federal Administration, a streamlined, accelerated process can be put in place for Dept of Interior (BLM) to exchange with the State so that the end result is two continuous corridors of public land, one State and one Federal (BLM). Those two corridors being adjacent to each other would have maximum public benefit for grazing and recreation purposes.

      Feds will have their own interests in mind for this process too, so it won’t be free of conflicts, delays, frustrations, etc etc etc., in my opinion. ~ 160 years of the difficult checkerboard history (valid as it might have been when created in the 1860’s) won’t be pushed aside with a few pen-strokes, most likely.