The sun sets over an oil well pumpjack in the Powder River Basin.(Jeremy Buckingham, Flickr Creative Commons)

As a retired oil and gas attorney, who negotiated plenty of leases and sales of leases in Wyoming, it’s clear to me that the royalty rebate bill advanced last week is a bad idea, based on a myth, created by someone who is unaware of the relevant facts.  

May I remind people, for perspective, that oil is at $90 a barrel. At a 20% royalty, the oil company gets $72 and royalty owners get $18.


Here is a little primer on oil and gas leasing in the Rocky Mountains. The royalty rate on federal minerals is 12.5%, long overdue to be increased. The royalty rate on State of Wyoming leased minerals is usually 16.66%, and has been since the 1980s. The royalty rate on new private mineral leases in the most productive parts of Campbell, Platte, Johnson, Converse and neighboring counties usually ranges from 17% to 20%. These facts are easily confirmed by a review of county public land records. There is plenty of profitable oil and gas production on lands with 17-20% royalties.

Part two of the primer: Parties who buy federal oil and gas leases include (1) operating companies seeking to enlarge their production, and (2) speculators who buy and hold leases, hoping to find someone to drill them.  

Many companies routinely assign overriding royalties — royalties in addition to the base royalty — to investors or family members. In this way, the effective royalty burden on many federal leases is already  increased from 12.5% to 18- or 20%. If I had to count the number of producing wells drilled on leases with 18- to 20% burdens, it would take a very long time. 

Speculators routinely reserve overriding royalties to themselves or associates of 5- to 7.5%. Some speculators receive royalty income from hundreds, if not thousands, of wells on federal leases in Wyoming. All of these statements are based on public records. (I mean nothing pejorative by use of the word “speculator,” as many such businesspeople are valued and generous members of their communities.)

The fact that state leases, private leases and federal leases with royalty burdens well above 12.5% all show plenty of production is ample evidence that there is no need to rebate money to new lessees who choose to buy federal leases with a higher royalty. There will not be as much room for lessees and their associates to keep overriding royalties, but that is not a public policy issue.

Federal royalties from coal, oil and gas are divided nearly equally between the State of Wyoming and the federal government. If the royalty rate on new leases is increased to 18%, one-half of the additional 5.5% will go to each entity.  

22LSO-0065- Mineral royalties-proportional severance tax relief, would upset a carefully crafted set of programs for funding state and local governments and schools. It would create a lease-by-lease accounting nightmare. For example, horizontal wells commonly drilled for one or two miles inevitably penetrate a mix of state, federal and private minerals. The operators pay the state 16.66% plus any overrides, private lessors anywhere from 17- to 20%, and federal royalty of 12.5% plus overrides up to 7.5%. If a new federal lease is issued at 18%, the lessees will simply have to reduce their overrides and sell the lease to the operator who needs it for infill or exploration.  

With this bill, the state will collect half of the higher royalties and give a tax rebate, if the operator can separate the new federal royalties from the old ones in leases with mixed production from state, federal and private minerals. Who is going to audit this mess? Oh well, it’s just bookkeeping, right?

But wait: tax revenues are public funds. Is it constitutional for the state to rebate taxes under the guise of stimulating industrial development? See Article 16, §6, Wyoming Constitution:  

(a) Neither the state nor any county, city, township, town, school district, or any other political subdivision, shall:

(i) Loan or give its credit or make donations to or in aid of any individual, association or corporation, except for necessary support of the poor;  or ….

There is no demonstrable need for this legislation. Federal leasing agents and their clients will sort out the new federal royalty burdens and they will keep on drilling.

RT Cox is a retired Gillette lawyer who formerly served on WyoFile’s board of directors. He wrote The Sage Grouse column for WyoFile for many years.

Join the Conversation


Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thank you RT Co ! The Wyoming Legislature is attempting to make an even bigger mess, to score “donations.”

    The 2007 US GAO study GAO-07-682T shows the rankings by country for mineral taxes. My reading of that study is that countries that develop their infrastructure, educate their workers, and provide a stable, predictible operating environment are able to charge higher royalties. While other countries command far higher mineral royalties, the USA continues to give our minerals away. The Wyoming Legislators that represent vested interests over the needs of the people of Wyoming, need to be sent home.

  2. I 100% agree with the following. If anyone is absolutely paying attention if I have my facts right there were Zero, new drilling going on in WyomIng in February of 2020 because the price of oil had dropped so low it was not worth ‘profitable” to drill in Wyoming at that time. This drop in oil prices took place because both the Russian’s and the Saudi’s decided to drop a barrel of oil to lower then production cost because their production cost are lower then Wyoming’s. While Barrasso complained about royalty and the delay in lease sales, Trump announced it would be a good time to fill the Strategic Oil Reserve with cheap oil. Sound great upfront and I might add hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil sat on Wyoming. Colorado, and Nebraska railroad sidings that could of been purchased and continued to support this industry and provided revenue for Wyoming. So next time you have a chance to confront Senator Barrasso please feel free to ask how many barrels of Wyoming oil was placed in the Strategic Oil Reserve? Any answer he give you, if you can even get a answer, will ring hollow, unlike the rail tankers sitting on the rural sidings across the Tri-state area looking for a place to go and be unloaded.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the details about the how foolish it would be to give the oil and gas industry a tax break/refund. What a crazy idea. Only in Wyoming would our elected officials think that providing a tax break for the oil and gas industry is necessary when oil is $90 a barrel. The oil and gas boys don’t need or deserver another tax break. Who are our legislators representing?

  4. Only in Wyoming with its treasury bankrupt but for the billions sent from the federal government would the legislature think of giving money to oil companies!

  5. I agree with you RT and very well put. Another example of the Legislature looking to solve problems that don’t, in reality, exist to look good to their electorate. Witness the recent special session this past summer.