2024 State Legislative Debrief: Wyoming

Apr 24, 2024

By Rachael Hamby

Wyoming’s state legislature alternates between a 40-day general session in odd-numbered years and a 20-day budget session in even-numbered years. During a budget session, after the third day of the session, any bill other than the budget bill requires a unanimous vote in the Senate or two-thirds vote in the House to be introduced. A bill is described as having “failed introduction” if it was voted on and did not clear this high bar for further consideration during a budget session. Of a total of 366 bills and resolutions that were drafted in the 2024 budget session, 121 passed both chambers and 108 were signed into law by Governor Mark Gordon.

In positive news, Wyoming put in place an administrative framework to begin using money in the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund, which was created last year with a $6 million appropriation but with no structure or procedures to actually use the money. With a structure and procedures now in place, Wyoming will soon be able to make grants from this fund to improve outdoor recreation access. Legislators also approved $2.2 million in spending from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust for three projects to support rangeland and river restoration.

Dubois Badlands, BLM Wyoming

The legislature also killed an effort to repeal a three-year tax exemption for wind-generated energy. The current tax exemption is designed to incentivize wind energy development by giving developers an exemption from an energy production tax for the first three years to help developers recoup some of the upfront costs of development; after this three-year period, they would then be subject to an energy production tax. Two bills that proposed to repeal this exemption failed introduction.

Legislators were also confronted with the contentious issue of the Kelly Parcel, a piece of state trust land surrounded on three sides by Grand Teton National Park. After a proposal to auction off the parcel was shelved due to significant public opposition, the legislature considered options for a sale of the parcel to the National Park Service. Legislators ultimately authorized a sale of the parcel for $100 million, on the condition that the federal government allow grazing and hunting on the land in perpetuity and that the Bureau of Land Management not adopt certain provisions related to rights-of-way and fluid mineral leasing currently contained in its preferred alternative in the draft Rock Springs Resource Management Plan. While tying the sale to an unrelated land management planning decision sets a poor precedent, if the sale is completed it will avoid the parcel being auctioned off to the highest-bidding private developer.

Grand Teton National Park, chascar via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In more concerning news, the Wyoming legislature considered a slew of bills this session aimed at combating perceived federal government overreach and threats to Wyoming’s interpretation of state sovereignty. Many of these bills are similar to bills passed or attempted in other Western states that continue to hawk transferring federally-managed public lands to the state, refusal to comply with federal laws and administrative actions, and other topics perennially popular among anti-conservation extremists. For example, the Natural Resource Protection Act, signed into law by Governor Gordon, states that if the governor of Wyoming determines that a federal executive order, rule, or regulation does not comply with federal land management laws, no state personnel or funds may be used to enforce or administer that federal executive order, rule, or regulation. This is a narrowed-down version of a Utah bill which was signed into law earlier in 2024. Fortunately, several other anti-federal government bills did not clear the budget session’s high bar for introduction.

The legislature also attempted to authorize itself to engage in its own legal challenges to federal land use plans and purchases of land in Wyoming, and to borrow $75 million to fund this effort. This bill passed both chambers but was vetoed by Governor Gordon, who reasoned that the legislature’s legal efforts would have been duplicative of the attorney general’s and therefore not in keeping with the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, and because $75 million was “not fiscally conservative.”

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park

Read on for more details on actions the legislature took this session to address the Kelly Parcel, the relationship between Wyoming and the federal government, state land management, outdoor recreation, conservation funding, energy, carbon capture, mining, and wildlife.

The Kelly Parcel

One of the more contentious issues faced by the legislature this session was how to address the proposed sale of the Kelly Parcel, a piece of state trust land surrounded on three sides by Grand Teton National Park and on the fourth side by the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Wyoming’s state constitution requires that the legislature approve any direct sale (i.e. not a public auction) of state trust lands. A proposal to hold a public auction for the Kelly Parcel was shelved after public outcry at the possibility of the land being auctioned off to a private developer. Also shelved: HB 121 Kelly parcel — sale and leasing requirements, which would have required that the parcel be leased or sold for conservation purposes but at extraordinarily inflated values, thus rendering either outcome essentially impossible.

Legislators ultimately settled on a provision in the final state budget bill signed by Governor Gordon that allows the sale of the parcel for $100 million, $37.6 million above a July 2022 appraisal, but with two conditions. One is that the terms of the sale include a requirement that the federal government allow grazing and hunting on the land in perpetuity, activities that are not typically allowed on land managed by the National Park Service; however, both are allowed, with limitations, in Grand Teton National Park. The other is that the governor make a determination that the federal Bureau of Land Management does not adopt certain provisions related to rights-of-way and fluid mineral leasing currently contained in its preferred alternative in the draft Rock Springs Resource Management Plan, expected to be finalized later this spring. Such changes are expected, however, leaving the biggest obstacle the raising of philanthropic dollars above the appraised value of $62.4 million, whose total has been earmarked for Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars. Raising $37.6 million for one square mile of land is a high ask, but as the Kelly Parcel is in Jackson Hole’s backyard, it may be less daunting than one might expect. The likelihood that the sale is accomplished by the end of the year remains high.

McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area, BLM Wyoming

Anti-federal government measures

In the context of federal programs for which the state has primary enforcement authority, or primacy, HB 35 Limitation on environmental rulemaking prohibits the Environmental Quality Council from promulgating any rules or regulations that are more stringent than federal laws or regulations, unless the Department of Environmental Quality has identified and stated a need for more stringent rules. The bill also directs the Department of Environmental Quality to consult with the stakeholders who are subject to these rules to identify existing rules that need to be reviewed to make sure they comply with this new requirement, and directs the Environmental Quality Council to promulgate or repeal rules as necessary to bring all of Wyoming’s rules into compliance. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

HB 36 Natural Resource Protection Act states that if the governor of Wyoming determines that a federal executive order, rule, or regulation does not comply with federal land management laws, no state personnel or funds may be used to enforce or administer that federal executive order, rule, or regulation. The governor may make an exception to preserve a primacy between the state and a federal agency if the governor determines that making the exception would result in a net reduction in “the adverse impact of federal regulation.” The bill also includes a legislative declaration that the federal government “arbitrarily restricting” public use of federal land is inconsistent with the principles of multiple use and sustained yield which guide federal land management agencies. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

HB 129 Statutory standing committees — federal review would have created new Federal Review joint and standing committees in both chambers of the legislature. These committees would have been tasked with reviewing any federal actions to determine whether the federal action is unconstitutional or infringes on or diminishes the sovereignty of Wyoming. This bill failed introduction.

HB 167 Restoring state sovereignty through nullification would have created a process for Wyoming to review actions taken by the federal government and adopt an “order of nullification” for those the legislature feels are unconstitutional. This bill was not considered for introduction.

HB 196 Sales of real property to the federal government would have attempted to impose a “no net gain” policy for federally-managed public lands within Wyoming by requiring that if the federal government were to acquire land in Wyoming, it would have to transfer other federal lands to the state so that the end result would not be a net gain of federal land. While it may have been directed at or inspired by the Kelly Parcel, this bill is similar to bills introduced in other Western states and is a concept promoted by anti-conservation extremists. For now, this idea has not gained sufficient traction in Wyoming, as this bill draft did not even receive a vote on whether to introduce it.

HJ 3 Support for local input in federal rulemaking, drafted in response to the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Rock Springs resource management plan, states the legislature’s opposition to federal rules, resource management plans, and environmental impact statements that “negatively affect Wyoming” and that “do not respect the custom and culture of Wyoming,” including, specifically, the BLM’s preferred alternative in the proposed Rock Springs RMP. This non-binding resolution passed the House by a vote of 58 to 4 and the Senate Minerals, Business, and Economic Development Committee, but did not receive a floor vote in the Senate.

SF 13 Federal land use plans — legal actions authorized, the legislature attempted to authorize itself to, separately from the Wyoming attorney general, take legal action to challenge federal land use plans and federal purchases of land within Wyoming. The legislature also proposed to allow itself to borrow $75 million from the state’s legislative stabilization reserve account to fund the pursuit of these legal challenges. The bill passed the Senate (20–9 with two not voting) and the House (47–15) but was vetoed by Governor Gordon. In his veto message, Governor Gordon explained that he vetoed the bill because the legislature’s legal efforts would have been duplicative of the attorney general’s and therefore not in keeping with the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, and because $75 million was “not fiscally conservative.”

SF 28 Federal natural resource management coordinator would have appropriated $10 million over two years to create a new governor-appointed federal natural resource management coordinator position which would have been responsible for a variety of duties, including: reviewing federal laws and administrative actions for their impact on Wyoming’s natural resource interests; exploring land exchanges between Wyoming and the federal government; designing an incentive program through bonuses or promotions for state employees who help protect the state from perceived federal overreach. This bill failed introduction.

SJR 1 Resolution demanding equal footing, a classic land-transfer effort in which the legislature would demand that Congress transfer all federal land and mineral rights within the state’s borders to Wyoming, attracted a number of co-sponsors but failed introduction (17 to 14).

Sand Dunes Wilderness Study Area, BLM Wyoming

Other hot-button Western topics

HB 177 Natural asset companies prohibition would have prohibited natural asset companies (a proposal that does not exist in reality yet) from managing any lands within the state, prohibited a holder of conservation easements within the state from investing or selling natural asset company credits, and prohibited the state treasurer from investing in natural asset companies. This is directed at a rule proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, since withdrawn, that would have allowed for the creation of natural asset companies that could invest in natural and working lands and ecosystem restoration. This bill was not considered for introduction.

HB 168 Foreign ownership of Wyoming agricultural lands would have prohibited foreign governments, foreign businesses, and nonresident aliens from owning agricultural land within the state. Similar bills have been considered in several other Western states this year and in recent previous years. This year’s Wyoming version was successfully introduced, but died in the House Agriculture, State and Public Lands, and Water Resources Committee. A similar bill, HB 183 Prohibiting foreign property ownership in Wyoming, would have restricted the purchase or holding of interest in land by governments, businesses or citizens of Russia, China, or any country that has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism under federal law. Despite attracting a large number of co-sponsors, this bill was not considered for introduction. Finally, SJR 2 Foreign adversaries — prohibited property ownership would have amended the state constitution to prevent foreign adversaries of the U.S. or “prohibited foreign entities as determined by the legislature” from owning property, including mineral interests, within the state. This resolution passed the Senate (24 to 7) but died in the House Appropriations Committee.

State lands

Two bills were passed making it slightly easier to renew leases on state lands. HB 10 Grace period — state land lease renewals adds a thirty-day grace period past the expiration of an existing lease to submit an application for a new lease. HB 11 State land lease amendments removes a list of acceptable types of payment and replaces it with simply “payment” and updates the law so that renewal applications and payments are considered filed on the date they were postmarked, as opposed to the date they were received. Both bills were signed by Governor Gordon.

Meanwhile, HB 141 State land oil and gas leases — operator requirement requires the board of land commissioners to promulgate rules defining a “qualified oil and gas applicant” for the purposes of bidding on oil and gas leases on state land, and requires that before issuing a lease of state land for oil and gas production, the board of land commissioners must verify that the highest-bidding applicant is a qualified oil and gas applicant. If the highest-bidding applicant is not qualified, the state land board may accept the next-highest bid and may penalize the unqualified applicant. This bill was signed into law by Governor Gordon.

SF 104 Wind and solar facilities — state lands amendments would have made it more difficult to permit wind and solar facilities on state lands by requiring the consent of all grazing and agricultural leaseholders within certain distances of towers or other structures. This bill failed introduction.

Medicine Bow National Forest, Simon via Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Outdoor recreation

In the 2023 session, the legislature created the permanent Wyoming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund and appropriated $6 million into the fund but did not provide for any governance structure or procedures to administer the fund. HB 67 Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund Administration adds many of these needed details, including creating a board to oversee the fund and authorizing the board to develop and adopt procedures to evaluate grant applications and award funds. This administrative framework paves the way for the state to begin actually using the fund to improve outdoor recreation access. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

SF 62 State parks — recreation management authority would have authorized the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources to lease state land for recreational purposes, something that many other Western states allow as an additional option to generate income from state lands. This bill failed introduction.

Two measures related to nonresident and guided fishing failed introduction. HB 2 Nonresident fishing license fee increase would have increased nonresident fishing license fees. HB 17 Fishing outfitters and guides — registration of fishing boats would have authorized the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to, if it chooses, regulate commercially-guided fishing boats by requiring registration and payment of a fee for boats and the vehicles or trailers that pull them. Both bills failed introduction.

Another fishing bill, HB 165 Access points on state lands — study, would have directed the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments to study the feasibility of developing and implementing an access point permitting system for commercial fishing activities on state lands. This bill passed out of both the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife, and Cultural Resources Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, but did not receive a floor vote in the House.

Conservation funding

SF 60 2024 large project funding appropriates nearly $2.2 million from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust for three projects that support rangeland and river restoration. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

HB 43 State forestry good neighbor — positions increases the number of full-time employees (from one to four) and contractors (from four to six) that may be hired using federal funds for Good Neighbor Authority or other federally-funded forest management projects. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

HB 112 Real estate transfer tax to offset property tax would have established a tax on the sale of real estate, with a number of exceptions, and distributed half of the tax revenues to counties and half to the state Department of Revenue to be distributed to counties to offset property taxes. Some Western states have banned (Montana) or attempted to ban (Utah) real estate transfer taxes. In other states that do have a real estate transfer tax, some use a portion of the revenue for conservation or open space. This bill failed introduction.

Oil and gas development in Wyoming, Bureau of Land Management

Energy

During this year’s state budget negotiations, legislators attempted to sweep funding for the Energy Matching Funds program, and move money for that program into other state programs. The Energy Matching Funds program was created in 2022 for the governor to award matching funds to help attract innovative energy projects (such as carbon sequestration and hydrogen production) to the state. However, the final state budget bill restored a $350 million appropriation (down from the original $400 million) to the program.

HB 7 Alternative fuel tax — electricity amendments would have imposed new fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as a per-kilowatt-hour tax on electricity used to charge electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles. This bill failed introduction.

HB 109 Wind tax exemption — repeal and the corresponding SF 116 Wind tax moratorium exemption — repeal were an attempt to remove the existing three-year tax exemption for wind-generated energy. The current tax exemption is designed to incentivize wind energy development by giving developers an exemption from an energy production tax for the first three years to help developers recoup some of the upfront costs of development; after this three-year period, they would then be subject to an energy production tax. Both bills failed introduction.

HB 208 Hydrogen severance tax would have imposed a severance tax on hydrogen production, with revenues going into the state’s mineral trust fund, treating hydrogen similarly to natural gas for taxation purposes. This bill failed introduction.

SF 22 Public service commission — electricity reliability requires the Public Service Commission (which regulates public utilities) to establish standards for “adequate reliable dispatchable power” and authorizes the commission to disallow utilities from investing in “nondispatchable resources,” which generally refers to sources such as wind and solar that can’t be turned on at the flip of a switch. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

SF 25 Reclamation and decommissioning costs would have required the Department of Environmental Quality to review any studies and analysis already conducted for coal-fired power plants that are already scheduled to be retired, to see if those studies underestimated decommissioning costs or failed to identify other potential decommissioning issues, and to provide a report to the legislature. This bill passed the Senate (30 to zero with one not voting) but failed in the House Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee.

SF 42 Low-carbon reliable energy standards — amendments updates the state’s existing low-carbon electricity generation standards to specify that a public utility that serves more than 10,000 customers must meet those low-carbon standards using existing or new coal-fired generation. In this context, low-carbon electricity, as already defined in existing law, means electricity generated while using carbon capture, utilization, and storage technology. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon. (An effort to repeal the low-carbon standards altogether, SF 101 Low-carbon energy standards — repeal, failed introduction.)

SF 64 Mineral royalties — proportional severance tax refunds would have established state severance tax refunds corresponding to any increase in federal mineral royalty rates for oil, gas and coal, so that there would be no net increase in taxes paid by mineral developers. This bill passed the Senate (19 to 12) but died in the House Appropriations Committee.

The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, Greg Goebel via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Carbon capture

HB 32 Geologic sequestration — unitization amendments makes a variety of clarifying changes related to geologic sequestration (storing captured carbon in pore spaces in underground rock formations) and unitization (pooling together the underground pore space if it has multiple owners). This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

HB 185 Enhanced oil recovery — severance tax exemption would have exempted oil and gas produced by enhanced oil recovery from half of the severance tax normally imposed on oil and gas production, provided that the carbon dioxide used in the enhanced oil recovery came from a carbon capture, utilization, and storage project and that the captured carbon originated within Wyoming. Enhanced oil recovery uses captured carbon in a process somewhat similar to fracking to extract oil and gas that would be difficult or uneconomical to extract using other existing technologies. This would have incentivized the development of carbon capture facilities in Wyoming, of which Governor Gordon is a proponent. This bill was not considered for introduction.

SF 43 Pore space — severances and separate conveyance prohibited would have prohibited the future severing of the ownership of underground pore space from the ownership of the surface. This bill would not have affected severances that have already occurred. This bill failed introduction.

SF 78 Carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery stimulus would have appropriated $10 million to create a stimulus program for the use of captured carbon dioxide in enhanced oil recovery, a process similar to fracking in which carbon dioxide is injected into rock formations to force to the surface oil or gas that would not be economically recoverable through other technology. This bill failed introduction.

A coal mine in Wyoming, Greg Goebel via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Mining

HB 33 Mining operations — blasting requirements directs the Environmental Quality Council to develop rules to govern the use of explosives at both new and existing non-coal surface mines. These new rules are to include standards and procedures for explosive use to prevent injury to people, damage to property, and impacts on water sources. The bill also requires mine operators to include a blasting plan along with their mining and reclamation plans, and to comply with the blasting plan. An appropriation for a new staff position to implement the provisions in the bill was included. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

HB 69 Mine permit and reclamation changes — landowner approval would have strengthened the rights of surface owners in situations where the minerals beneath the surface are owned by another entity by requiring the written consent of the surface owner before revising a permit or reclamation plan. This bill failed introduction.

HB 73 Abandoned mine reclamation accounts creates a new long-term abandoned mine reclamation account, which is designed to receive federal funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The fund may be used for abatement and treatment of acid mine drainage from coal mines; prevention, abatement, and control of subsidence; and prevention, abatement, and control of coal mine fires. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

HB 96 Abandoned mine land program would have created a grant program for local governments. While many details were left up to the state’s Abandoned Mine Land Division, the program was intended to interact with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The bill passed out of the House Appropriations Committee but did not receive a House floor vote.

SF 44 Limited mining operations — amendments would have made a number of complicated changes to requirements related to limited mining operations, including amendments to the bill designed to address a specific individual gravel exploration operation. This bill passed both chambers but was vetoed by Governor Gordon, who noted in his veto message that “Statutory changes are not the proper place to address specific concerns for individual operations” and pointed out unintended consequences of the bill.

Pronghorn at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Wildlife

HB 60 Excess wildlife population damage amendments would have allowed private landowners to seek compensation from the Game and Fish Department for “extraordinary damage to rangeland,” defined as the loss of forage normally available to livestock, caused by any big game species. The bill also stated a presumption that extraordinary damage to rangeland has occurred if big game population estimates exceed population objectives for two or more consecutive years (though the Game and Fish Department would have been allowed to rebut this presumption on a case-by-case basis). This bill passed the House, the Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife, and Cultural Resources Committee, and the Senate Appropriations Committee, but was not considered by the full Senate.

HB 116 Sage grouse implementation — notice to landowners amends the existing Sage Grouse Implementation Team to require that the implementation team must provide written notice to any affected surface owners and hold a public meeting in at least one community that includes affected surface owners before issuing any recommendations. This bill was signed by Governor Gordon.

Takeaways and looking to next year

Wyoming’s legislature will meet for a general session in 2025. That session will be longer and bills will not have the same high bar to clear just to be introduced as they do during a budget session. Anti-federal government bills are likely to be introduced again, as are additional efforts to prop up coal and put up barriers to renewable energy. Given Governor Gordon’s enthusiasm for carbon capture — a mixed bag in terms of its climate benefits — additional measures related to this suite of technologies are likely to come up in the near future. Finally, as the Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund gets up and running, Wyoming may begin making meaningful investments in building a sustainable outdoor recreation economy for the future.

 

Feature image: Grand Teton National Park, Department of the Interior