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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Cat Williams stands for a portrait in the Boys & Girls Club of Central Wyoming Tuesday afternoon, Mar. 6, 2018. Williams is the State Youth of the Year for the Wyoming Boys & Girls Club.

Federal agency says missing public comments on sage grouse likely technical error

The Bureau of Land Management confirmed claims from environmental groups that many of their public comments were not included in a recent report on federal plans to revise sage grouse management in the West.

A coalition of 20 environmental advocacy groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society put the number at about 187,000 comments.

The Bureau of Land Management couldn’t confirm the number of missing submissions, but said it was looking into the source of the mistake.

“Apparently, they were never received by BLM and that’s why they did not show up in the final scoping report,” said Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management Wednesday. “Just how many we’re missing is unknown. You can’t count what you didn’t receive.”

The bureau was in contact with the groups that raised concerns, he said, and is working with them to get the missing comments included as the review process of the sage grouse plans moves forward.


Environmental groups have been at odds with the Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, over the plans since last year when the administration called for change. They have lobbied in public and private to keep the plans in place.

The disappearance of so many comments to that effect lead some to question how many other voices were not counted, said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president of public lands for the National Wildlife Federation.

The group reported that 328 of its Wyoming comments, and thousands of its comments from other states, appear to be left out of the report.

The group has been told that they can resend those comments and the BLM will note them as an addendum, Stone-Manning said.

But the bigger problem from these group is that the Interior isn’t going to heed the comments that they do have, she said.

“Hundreds of thousands of people chimed in,” she said. “Yet it appears from the report that they are continuing down the path of making changes to these plans when governors and the broader American public has said ‘Please, don’t make wholesale change to these plans.’”

It is not yet clear why the comments were not received by the BLM or the contractor that the agency works with, he said.

“We don’t have a definitive answer, but the signs all point to a technological problem, and not human error,” Smurthwaite said.


Wyoming is home to about 30 percent of the bird’s population and was a key driver of developing a strategy to conserve the bird that focused on landscape management. Federal plans put in place two years ago were bartered among a coalition of private landowners, industry representatives and federal and state agencies.

Some thought the federal plans fell short of protecting the bird, while others thought that the rules needed more work to fairly balance conservation and other interests, like energy development. In any case, the plans staved off an endangered species listing for the plump western bird, saving states like Wyoming from restrictions that would pose significant risk to the state’s fossil fuel industries.

But the plans were opened up last year by the Trump Administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cited western “anger” as a key motive in reevaluating the plans.

He has also noted a need to unleash energy development on public lands and undo restrictions that are unfair to those industries.

Environmental groups have pushed back on the Interior’s direction, fearing an unraveling of key habitat protections and the return of an endangered species designation. Other sage grouse leaders in Wyoming say the plans can handle change if they are done thoughtfully. Most agree a broad stripping of the plans would be bad for the bird and bad for the state.

Self-bonding may be a rare occurance for mines under proposed rules

Environmental groups are encouraged and companies hesitant over draft rules that would stiffen Wyoming’s self-bonding regulations.

The Department of Environmental Quality unveiled the potential changes Monday after an informal proposal that came out last year.

For companies to operate in the Cowboy State, whether pumping uranium or digging coal, they have to set aside money for the environmental cleanup of the site. Firms can do that in a number of ways, from traditional insurance to posting collateral to applying for self-bonds.

However, the practice of self-bonding, which critics say is simply an IOU to the state, would be greatly restricted under the proposed rules, a win for environmental groups that fought the practice during the coal bankruptcy period and a headache for firms that want self-bonding to remain an option in Wyoming.

What’s in the draft?

Companies would only be able to apply for self-bonding for mines with more than 10 years of operations left.

The amount a company is allowed to self-bond is tied to credit ratings from reputable firms like Moody’s Investment Service, Standard and Poor’s Corporation or Fitch Ratings.

No company can self-bond more than 75 percent of its reclamation obligations.

Financial liability is tied to the ultimate parent company, not just the subsidiaries or operators.

The amount of the self-bond cannot exceed one-quarter of the company’s national net worth.

If a company falls out of eligibility for its self-bonds, the state can request a replacement, and the firm has 90 days to secure some other type of reclamation insurance.

Personal property cannot be used as collateral against cleanup obligations.

Bankruptcies and bonds

The debate over self-bonding in Wyoming became a heated issue in recent years. The state kept track of the health of companies via financial statements, but that allowed a struggling company to get further into financial straits before regulators were able to address the unsecured bonds.

State regulators were criticized during the coal bankruptcy period, between 2015 and 2016, for allowing mines to continue operations despite their owners no longer qualifying for many millions of dollars in self-bonds.

Peabody Energy, which operates the largest mine in Wyoming, had $728 million in self-bonds in Wyoming at the time of its bankruptcy in 2016, and $1.1 billion in self-bonds in four other states.

Deals were brokered with large firms like Peabody to operate with self-bonds until they had emerged from bankruptcy. The state has defended that position as the only reasonable way to maintain the jobs and revenue that come from Wyoming’s coal sector.

Since then, Peabody, Arch Coal and Contura Energy have replaced their self-bonds in the state with collateral and traditional bonds. Cloud Peak Energy, a large firm in the Powder River Basin that avoided bankruptcy, also replaced its self-bonds, but did so voluntarily. The others were obligated as part of their reorganization plans.

Officials for the Department of Environmental Quality have said in earlier interviews with the Star-Tribune that the proposed rules changes are not a direct response to the coal bankruptcies or to a changing market for coal.

Rather, the update to bonding rules will address the dramatic changes in financial markets since the rules were written in the early ‘80s, officials say.

Two sides to every story

Environmentalists in the state have expressed support for the direction of the rules, though many have long been advocates of completely removing the option of self-bonding from the state’s playbook.

“Wyoming should follow the lead of Montana and eliminate the practice of self-bonding, which can leave taxpayers at risk of having to pay for clean up after a coal company goes bankrupt due to bad business decisions,” said Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club. She also said the added protections for self-bonding were a step in the right direction in a statement Tuesday.

Members of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group in northern Wyoming, support the reduction of self-bonding options, said Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the group.

The Department of Environmental Quality invited interested groups and industry firms last year to weigh in on an earlier draft of the proposed rule changes.

In an informal email the Powder River Basin Resource Council sent to the department, the group supported limiting self-bonding to mines with more than ten years of mine-life left to go. It also noted support for eliminating private property as collateral against cleanup. With the decline in coal production in recent years, a surplus of equipment across the Powder River Basin is likely, the groups said.

“Therefore, we do not believe there would be a robust market for used mining equipment held by the state as bond collateral,” the letter states.

In a series of emails obtained by the council through a public records request, coal and uranium companies also weighed in on self-bonding, with some asking the state for a more attainable credit rating in order to self bond.

Peabody Energy, the firm that owns the largest open surface coal mine in the country, North Antelope Rochelle, noted that the proposed credit ratings were likely too high for companies to reasonably obtain.

“Even when most coal companies were at their peak financial years, they would not have qualified for any self-bonding with the required credit ratings included in the proposed rule,” the company’s vice president and treasurer, James Tichenor said. He also noted that the 10 years of mining life was unnecessarily prohibitive, as “the remaining life of a mine is fluid based on fluctuating market conditions.”

A rural electricity provider that gets coal from the Dry Fork mine argued that self-bonding for mine-to-plant operations should be handled differently. The risk of a mine being abandoned or the company landing in bankruptcy is “virtually nonexistent for utility or cooperative-owned mines,” said Michael Easley, CEO of Powder River Energy Corp in a letter to the department in February.

The Department of Environmental Quality’s Land Advisory Board will consider the proposed rule changes in a public meeting March 28 in Gillette. The draft is currently out for public comment. If the draft receives approval from the board, it proceeds to the Environmental Quality Council after another public comment period and ultimately to the governor. The board’s opinion could also lead to revisions before it is sent on to the council.

Wyoming Legislature forced to extend session after late-night compromise reached too close to midnight

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature has extended what was supposed to be a four-week budget session after the House and Senate failed to agree on state construction spending. The two chambers passed a budget Saturday morning, the last scheduled day of the session, but could not break an impasse on the construction legislation until after 10:00 p.m. that night, at which point was too late to write a new bill, vote on it, sign it and deliver it to Gov. Matt Mead for his approval.

Instead, lawmakers will reconvene later this week to receive any line-item vetoes to the budget from Mead as well as to vote on the construction bill and one on education spending, which could not be finalized before the building measure was complete.

The main budget bill, which funds most state agencies, was passed by roughly two-thirds of lawmakers in the House and Senate after reaching a deal to remove both construction and education cuts from the budget. The idea was that those two topics would then be addressed in separate pieces of legislation.

But the same tensions that prevented a budget deal from being reached before removing those items continued once they were broken out: the Senate wanted to reduce spending far more aggressively than the House, which wanted to rely on interest earnings to cover a large part of the state’s roughly $850 million deficit.

During the first attempt to reach compromise on construction projects Saturday afternoon, Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said that after passing the main budget without significant cuts his chamber did not want to spend a lot of money on new buildings.

Bebout listed three projects he was willing to agree to, which quickly ended the meeting with members of the House.

After Bebout abruptly left the meeting, Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who was representing the House said “it’s just posturing.”

The two sides were then scheduled to reconvene at 8:30 p.m. But they did not come together until nearly two hours later after Gov. Matt Mead held closed door meetings with Bebout and House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper.

Mead left Harshman’s office around 10:00 p.m. Asked if a deal had been reached he said, “we’ll see.”

When the two sides finally did reconvene later that night it appeared that the Senate had significantly retreated on its hardline spending position, agreeing to at least partially fund several projects that Bebout had rejected out of hand during the afternoon meeting.

Those projects include a state office building in Casper and a science building at the University of Wyoming.

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, appeared to acknowledge that the Senate had largely folded when he jokingly pointed out the red ties that two of the House members at the meeting were wearing.

“That’s why they bested us today,” Perkins said. “They wore their red ties.”

But if the goal was to reach a compromise so that lawmakers could end the session and return home, Legislative Service Office director Matt Obrecht quickly put those hopes to bed. Obrecht had warned legislators during their afternoon session that a deal needed to be reached very quickly in order for the Legislature’s staff attorneys to have time to write a new bill that reflected the result of the negotiations and bring to the floor of both chambers for a vote.

By the time an agreement was reached, Obrecht said it was far too late to write the bill before the Legislature’s midnight deadline. The state constitution prohibits lawmakers from working on Sunday.

“You’ve got 90 minutes. We just can’t do it,” Obrecht told the committee working on the construction deal. After lawmakers prodded, he was more adamant. “It’s not doing our best or not — we’ll do our best, but there’s no way,” he said.

Lawmakers had three additional days that they were allowed to meet in addition to the scheduled 20-day session, and both Bebout and Harshman were considering calling back legislators to attempt to override any potential vetoes by Mead.

Mead has three days to review the budget, on which he can exercise line-item vetoes, and is also able to veto individual bills that were passed. Two controversial measures that have been sent to his desk include a “stand your ground” self-defense bill, which Mead has already expressed apprehension about, and a bill meant to protect critical infrastructure in Wyoming but that critics say would stifle free speech.

The governor must return his vetoes by Wednesday night, so lawmakers decided not to meet again until that day. If the Legislature met to complete the construction and education legislation Monday, lawmakers would be nearly out of the three additional days by the time Mead returned vetoed items. For that reason, the House will meet again Wednesday evening and the Senate will meet again Thursday.

Casper City Council to encourage public engagement

Casper leaders have decided they want to improve the way they directly share their thoughts with residents.

How, exactly, they will accomplish the goal is a little more up to debate.

Some council members think becoming more active on social media will accomplish this goal; others feel social media should not be a high priority.

A stronger social media presence would help the Council connect with constituents, said Councilman Jesse Morgan during a strategic planning workshop last week. The two-day workshop, which took place last week at the Casper Events Center, was intended to help the Council set high-level objectives for the city.

“We need to welcome the 21st century,” said Morgan.

Arguing that much of the discussion on social media platforms is just hearsay, Councilman Bob Hopkins said he didn’t think this should be a priority for the Council.

“I do not intend to run government by social media,” he said.

Morgan agreed that rumors are rampant on the internet, but said false information was still capable of damaging the city’s reputation. The Council needs a stronger voice on social media to provide accurate updates to the city’s residents.

Councilman Dallas Laird agreed with Morgan and explained that social media is especially important to the younger generation.

“That’s what they rely on [for information],” he said.

The Council’s leadership and the city manager should also be more “proactive” when it comes to representing the Council’s viewpoints, according to Morgan. The councilman said it would be beneficial to have prepared statements ready to share with the public and media after controversial decisions.

Mayor Ray Pacheco and Vice Mayor Charlie Powell were receptive to these ideas and discussed holding regular meetings with the press and listening sessions with the public.

The vice mayor also suggested that a city staffer could interview himself and Pacheco following meetings and then post a 10-minute recap online.

The city has worked to improve communication with constituents throughout the last year. Council members decided last August to start recording work sessions and sharing the footage online.

“We have to embrace technology,” Morgan said at the time.

Official meetings, which are held in the chamber area, were already broadcast on the internet and the government access channel. But the Council decided in August to also share that footage on social media outlets like Facebook.

Jolene Martinez said this week that city staff always encourage public engagement. The city manager assistant explained that every citizen has a preferred method of communication.

“There is absolutely a group of people that prefer to receive their news from Facebook and there are other citizens who don’t...” she said. “We have many people who still prefer to get an old fashioned letter.”