Another attempt by mineral owners to wrest drilling control in southeastern Wyoming from the large independent Anadarko Petroleum by opposing the company’s drilling permits failed last week to convince commissioners overseeing Wyoming’s oil and gas industry.
A group of locals from Laramie County, including a state representative, were protesting more than 100 applications for permits to drill filed by Anadarko on the grounds that the big company was simply securing its authority over drilling in the area but was not planning to drill — at least not right away.
And drilling is what the locals are looking for. They want to make money off the hydrocarbons under their property or the minerals they picked up as an investment. If Anadarko doesn’t develop its minerals, they argued, it is inhibiting development and people are losing money.
It’s not a new complaint. Other local land and mineral owners represented by the same lawyer — Kris Koski of Long, Reimer, Winegar, Beppler LLP — protested Anadarko permits last year. They too argued that the firm had effectively established a monopoly in the county by filing thousands of applications to drill in an area where the company already has significant mineral ownership.
Anadarko doesn’t appear to be in a rush to drill in the area. Koski stated in the hearing that the company hadn’t drilled a well there in at least six years.
Koski’s landowners lost that battle at the close of last year and again on Tuesday.
Landowners did not introduce any new facts, nor prove that Anadarko was wasting resources or interfering with the rights of other mineral owners — two points that would provide grounds for the commission to deny a permit to drill application.
“Oil in the ground is not waste,” argued Jim Mowry of Crowley Fleck, representing Anadarko, noting that this issue had been argued and decided already.
“He’s getting a second bite of the apple,” Mowry said of the landowners’ lawyer. “The only difference is the name of the landowners and the name of the wells.”
The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission agreed. After allowing a few hours of comment on Tuesday from land and mineral owners, commissioners resoundingly denied the protests without debate.
In denying the landowners protest Tuesday, Commissioner Erin Campbell, the state geologist, noted that though nothing new had been raised to change the commission’s original decision, the APD issue was not being swept under the rug.
It has the attention of the Legislature, the governor’s office and the commission staff, she said.
Gov. Mark Gordon, who sits on the commission, also noted the challenge.
“The issue is very real and needs to be dealt with,” the governor said. “I make that point because this audience understands what that means.”
One lawmaker that had spurred the discussion of a change in policy was in the room, Rep. John Eklund, R-Cheyenne. Represented by Koski, Eklund was one of the land and mineral owners protesting Anadarko’s drilling permit applications.
Eklund argued that the way Wyoming’s rules work now amounts to theft, disparaging the idea that an approved application for permit to drill establishes control and noting frustration that the first-come, first-served approach can potentially prohibit development.
Mowry, representing Anadarko, asked the lawmaker if he was before the commission on his own behalf or that of his constituents.
“Both,” Eklund said.
Eklund took the drilling permit debate to the Legislature last month in a bill that would have imposed a dramatic increase to the drilling permit application fee — most of which would be refunded upon drilling — in hopes of deterring frivolous permit applications and depress the war over operatorship.
The bill didn’t make it far. Nor did a host of other bills, each wrestling with the sudden perceived crisis in the state’s oil and gas development rules. Groups like the Petroleum Association of Wyoming noted their desire to have more time to take a holistic look at changes to keep pace with industry’s technological and engineering advances.
Securing drilling permits before the competition carries benefits in Wyoming, but everything from drilling and spacing to optimal well density has become complicated in the modern drilling environment. What has challenged state officials, noted in previous interviews with the Star-Tribune, is that companies in the race for operatorship have played by the rules and made significant investments to do so. It’s difficult to unravel that now.
Nonetheless, Wyoming’s oil fields, particularly to the north of Laramie County, have inspired a rush to secure control. That’s led to a record number of applications for permits to drill being filed in the state. The number of applications awaiting consideration has passed 30,000, according to the commission.
The activity has stacked monthly hearing weeks. Tuesday’s meeting in Casper was a packed house, with a number of scheduled hearings punted to April, including a flaring request that was given a temporary approval in lieu of a full hearing.
Last Tuesday, Koski introduced some bold suggestions for the commissioners early on, such as effectively dispensing with the control aspect of first come, first served and simply allowing the driller that’s ready to drill proceed.
He argued that such a practice would not be unlike the current drilling schedule that the commission enacted to handle the rush of drilling permit applications.
Micah Christiansen, assistant attorney general, halted the hearing at that point noting that a policy debate veered out of the purview of the hearing as it had been publicly noticed.
Eric Easton, director of the attorney general’s office in Casper, added that attempting to change policy through the hearing would be an “extraordinary remedy.”
Lawmakers in the state have promised to address Wyoming’s oil and gas regulations in an intense interim series of meetings. The leaders of both the House and Senate minerals committees noted at the end of the Legislative session last month that modernization was necessary for the state.
Koski’s original landowner protest — denied by the commission — has been appealed to district court in Cheyenne.
As the nation’s government watchdogs commemorate Sunshine Week – an annual nationwide celebration of citizens’ access to public information – the citizens of Wyoming, a state that has been labeled as one the least-transparent states in the nation, seem to be waking up to the dawning of a new era of access and accountability here in the Equality State.
First-year Gov. Mark Gordon says he plans to make improving transparency in state government a cornerstone of his policy agenda. State Auditor Kristi Racines, in a dramatic shift from her predecessor, Cynthia Cloud, released a trove of state financial data that had long been withheld by the state. In the Legislature, lawmakers recently passed public records legislation intended to bring more accountability to government agencies at all levels, from local water and sewer districts on up to the executive branch.
Wyoming still has a long way to go to match other states’ commitments to transparency, however. With an effective date of July 1, the flows of information in and out of state government are facilitated with a patchwork of spreadsheets, printouts and other organizational techniques to track public records requests that can vary widely from agency to agency, with no set protocol or system to track the status of those requests. In the Department of Administration and Information, for example, public records requests are tracked using a spreadsheet maintained by staffers in the office. At the University of Wyoming – which received more than 200 public records requests last year – and in the Secretary of State’s Office, records officers work with an informal system of tracking requests, which can entail everything from pointing members of the public to a state website or intensive looks into other records those agencies might maintain.
“Different agencies do things differently and really, they will continue to do so until more uniform advice comes out of the AG’s office,” said Tony Bennett, a senior business analyst with A&I.
“I think what’s lacking is some kind of uniform tracking mechanism that the different departments can use,” he added. “Right now, they don’t have that.”
The main purpose of sunshine laws, said Wyoming media attorney Bruce Moats in a Monday afternoon forum at Laramie County Community College, is to defend the principles of self-governance that allow successful democracies to remain successful.
In a one-hour lecture sponsored by the Wyoming Society of Professional Journalists and LCCC student newspaper, Wingspan, Moats described access to public records as a practice essential to providing citizens a fundamental understanding of the operations of government, empowering their voices in the process by vesting them with the ability to practically engage in the systems dictating their everyday lives.
“If you don’t know what government is up to or what your representatives are doing, your ability to be a self-governor has very little meaning,” said Moats.
This year’s legislation – while a step in the right direction, based on conversations with agency officials and lawmakers – leaves state agencies with a wide swath of authority on how to respond to members of the public, perpetuating the existence of a network of diverse and differing protocols for handling public records between various state agencies.
Though the bill creates set time frames for when records requests need to be fulfilled and, if longer, sets protocols for how to work out mutual understandings on creating new deadlines, the legislation does not create a standardized system or a repository for those requests once they’re fulfilled, essentially leaving municipalities and state agencies a license to apply the law as needed.
Several state agencies expressed an appreciation for the level of flexibility allowed under the law, which many lawmakers considered to be something of a “baby step” to improve compliance and encourage best practices for transparency for smaller government entities, which may not have full-time records officers or a thorough understanding of state public records law.
“The bill necessitates a lot of what we already do – to work with every requester, and not in an adversarial kind of approach but rather coming together and figuring out what they need,” said Will Dinneen, the public information officer for the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office.
There are gaps, however. Though each part of the bureaucracy is subject to Wyoming’s existing public records law and, under the new law, will be subject to a 30-day deadline to fulfill a request for records, no agency in state government – not even A&I, which maintains a transparency website with all the state’s financial records — keeps track of all the public information requests that come into the state.
The Department of Corrections — which currently employs three public records officers — handled roughly 140 requests in 2016, each of which had to be reviewed twice for privacy concerns, according to assistant director Steve Lindley. The University of Wyoming, which processes about 206 requests for records on average per year, according to a spokesperson, does not otherwise track those requests. The State Supreme Court handles its records requests on a case-by-case basis and, with no tracking system, has no specific numbers on how many records requests it handles per year, nor figures on its average response times, said court clerk Patricia Bennett, who handles the requests either herself or passes them along to administrative staff for review.
“We try to get those requests filled as quickly as possible,” she said.
This has been on the mind of officials at A&I, who have recently been reviewing uniform public records systems used in states like Utah, which maintains everything from financial disclosures to legislator email records in one, easy-to-use interface on a state website. However, lawmakers in Wyoming have not set aside money for such a system.
“There will be a role for expanding the transparency website as we go along based on what the governor has set as a priority for his administration,” Bennett said. “But right now, everyone is on a different system.”
“This will get a lot of attention in the near future,” he added.
One of the most successful examples of a public records system in the state is the one operated by the Department of Environmental Quality, which routinely receives hundreds of records requests every year from a mix of public and private entities. Several years ago, the department was essentially where other agencies in state government were — taking requests off of an email account and tracking them using a spreadsheet, said DEQ public information officer Keith Guille.
Guille thought there had to be a better way.
“I just got a letter and I didn’t know why I was receiving it,” he said. “I wondered if anyone was keeping track of these and whether or not they were being responded to.”
Using funding from its information technology budget, DEQ adopted an online interface called NextRequest, an ultra-modern public records management system founded by several former government employees that, today, is utilized by entities like the cities of New Orleans and San Diego. The interface – in place for more than a year now – allows the department to track numerous metrics on the status of records in one place, including how long a request has been outstanding and what the records request includes.
Though the department typically receives about 700 requests per year, Guille said the average length of turnaround for the department is somewhere around 10 days.
“It wasn’t really costly when you think about IT today,” said Guille. “This was a pretty affordable system for what it could do for us.”
“We went forward with this mostly just because of the volume,” he added. “It made our agency a little uneasy, and we wanted to be sure these were getting responded to. It’s important.”
Under the existing system, members of the public and the media still have their records requests routinely denied for myriad reasons. A recent public records request from a Star-Tribune reporter for emails related to allegations that staff mocked special needs students in the Natrona County School District, for example, was denied on the grounds it would create an unwarranted invasion of privacy, according to an attorney letter dated March 8.
Without financial backing from the state for institutions to improve their record keeping, the public can be further kept in the dark. Another recent denial letter – this one to a Wyoming Public Radio reporter – from the Wyoming Supreme Court came over a request for court data related to juvenile offenses. Though the court had the records on file, they were under no obligation to compile those statistics under current state statutes. Instead, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Star-Tribune, the court pointed the reporter to the limited data already on the state’s website, stating that “limited funding, staff, and lack of uniformity in current data” precluded the court from providing any additional information beyond what was on the website.
Under the current law, if citizens are denied a record, they can ask for a written explanation of the denial, which includes the authority under which the record was denied and, if the reasons are unsatisfactory, citizens can take the government to court.
“That’s one of the most important things both for reporters and citizens I can think of – demanding that explanation,” Moats said in his lecture. “Why can’t the public know this information, and why can’t they know it in time? As a journalist and an attorney, that’s one of the most difficult questions for elected officials to be able to answer: ‘Why do you get to know it, and why can’t everybody else know it?’ So I urge members of the public to get that answer, to make them explain it, and then publicize that explanation.”
Lawmakers drafting the bill did recognize, however, that these disagreements can occur, and in the new legislation created an ombudsman position within the executive branch, or a designated public official for citizens to appeal to should their public records request be denied for any reason.
It is still unclear what the duties of the position will fully entail, however, and whether or not the creation of the position will be a good thing for transparency or just another bureaucratic hurdle in the appeal process.
“The ombudsman could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing,” said Moats. “It depends on how it’s implemented and how it’s put forward in there.”
The executive branch is still working that definition out for itself.
“The ombudsman position is an opportunity to advance transparency, which is very important to me,” Gov. Mark Gordon, who will need to appoint someone to the position by the time the law takes effect July 1, said in a statement. “I just signed this law into legislation last week, so it’s a little early to discuss specifics. The next steps are to develop the job description for the ombudsman, and determine the process between our office, state agencies and across Wyoming’s governmental entities.”
Earlier this month, Casper’s leaders decided against outlawing the overservice of alcohol. But the City Council — which instead decided to require servers to undergo alcohol-serving training — made it clear that the first option was still on the table if alcohol-related crime doesn’t decline.
Casper isn’t the only community in the state trying to prevent citizens from becoming overly intoxicated. At the request of the Sheridan Police Department, the Sheridan City Council banned overservice in June 2017.
“It’s all about the safety of the patrons,” said Travis Koltiska, a lieutenant at the Sheridan Police Department. “If someone is too intoxicated then they aren’t cognitive enough to make the decision (about whether to drink more) at that point.”
A copy of the ordinance states that liquor license holders and their employees must “refuse to serve any patron who is obviously intoxicated, or is obviously physically endangering people or property in the licensed premises or dispensing area.”
Those who violate the code may be found guilty of a misdemeanor.
Since the law is still relatively new, Koltiska said it’s difficult to measure its effectiveness at this point. But the officer said he believes it was necessary because Sheridan has a problem with overserving.
One of the incidents that led police to propose tighter rules involved a man purchasing alcohol from a liquor license retailer when he was already clearly drunk, according to Koltiska. Video footage obtained from the establishment showed that the man was only wearing one shoe, displayed poor balance while shopping and struggled to hold on to his wallet when paying.
But Koltiska said the business still sold the man alcohol.
“We are just trying to bring some awareness to this issue,” he said.
Since the ordinance passed, Koltiska said he only knows of one citation that has been issued for overserving. There was initially some protest from liquor license holders about the new law, but he said the overall community understood the need for stricter rules.
But Monte Buckmaster, the owner of the Mint Bar and a member of the Sheridan County Liquor Dealers Association, said many bar owners and servers believe the city’s leaders went too far.
“They’ve got it in their head that we (bar owners and servers) are pumping as much liquor into people as we can to make money,” he said. “They view that as the practice of everybody, and that’s just not true.”
After a citizen got into a fight outside of his establishment, Buckmaster said police officers asked to see surveillance tapes from inside the Mint Bar so they would know how many drinks the patron had consumed.
Buckmaster said the man hadn’t actually purchased alcohol from the Mint Bar, so there were no penalties for the establishment. But the bar owner said he felt like police were trying to pin someone else’s actions on a server.
“You have to be responsible for your own behavior,” he said.
Bar owners and servers in Casper echoed similar sentiments when the Casper City Council was considering making it a crime to overserve alcohol.
While Casper’s leaders ultimately decided to require severs and other employees at establishments that serve alcohol to undergo training within 90 days of being hired, several Council members cautioned the community that they would be looking for proof that this training was effective.
“We need to see some evidence that this training is not just being completed but it’s actually changing behavior so we’re not seeing overserving in our facilities,” said Mayor Charlie Powell, explaining that the Council would likely outlaw overserving if it continued to be a problem.
Powell also suggested passing a resolution saying that the Council would consider implementing the law if things do not improve. The Council ultimately decided such a resolution was unnecessary.
“It’s not that big of a deal to me whether we do the resolution or not,” he said. “I just wanted to give a message that we are backing off on this for now but that things have to get better.”
Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters has said on several occasions that tighter rules are needed because the overservice of alcohol is a serious problem in Casper.
According to the chief, 59 percent of people in the city who are booked into jail are intoxicated and almost half of all drivers arrested for DUIs are more than the twice the legal limit.
Casper police arrested a substitute elementary school teacher last week on suspicion of working while under the influence.
According to court documents, several teachers Friday reported Carrie Gross appeared “markedly impaired” while she was working at Pineview Elementary School. The Natrona County School District’s risk manager and the school’s assistant principal met with her. During the meeting she appeared lethargic and gave nonsensical or inconsistent answers to their questions, the risk manager, Andrea Nester, told police.
Gross, 39, declined to submit to substance use testing, the documents state. She did say she had used alcohol in the morning before recanting the statement, Nester told police. The district’s associate superintendent for human resources, Verba Echols, was also present at the school Friday.
Prosecutors on Monday charged Gross with a single misdemeanor count of use of a controlled substance. She has requested a jury trial, according to a Natrona County Circuit Court clerk.
According to a district statement, which did not include names, the “individual” who met with Nester and law enforcement at the school “is no longer a substitute” in the district.
Court documents did not indicate if Gross has retained a lawyer and court clerks gave conflicting responses when asked if she had entered a not guilty plea.
The documents state a responding police officer noted that Gross was unsteady and had red eyes and dilated pupils, which can be signs of drug use.
The police officer indicated in the documents that Gross appeared to be under the influence of cannabis and a central nervous system depressant.
Star-Tribune staff writer Seth Klamann contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: A previous headline on this article misstated where the substitute was arrested. She was arrested in Pineview Elementary School.
Softball is a little bit closer to becoming an athletic event in Casper schools after a committee from the Natrona County school board recommended the full body throw its support behind the effort, which has been pronounced here and in communities across Wyoming.
The effort to have state officials sanction the sport has been underway for six months. As a result, several districts — Campbell, Laramie 1, both Sweetwater 1 and 2, Park’s 1 and 6 — have expressed interest, some with multiple high schools. In Casper, softball coaches, players and parents have packed school board meetings to urge the nine trustees to consider supporting the broader effort. Even before they came, the district here was researching the possibility.
Eight high schools are required for a sport to be sanctioned here, according to the Wyoming High School Activities Association. Walt Wilcox, Natrona County School District’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that 12 high schools outside of Casper have expressed interest.
Last week, Wilcox walked the board’s academic steering committee through a survey of Casper middle and high school girls. Of the 1,446 female students surveyed, 713 said they would participate in softball. The sport was by far the most desired for female students who wanted girls to have another sport option (with the recent loss of gymnastics, boys have one more sport than girls).
Of the students surveyed who currently weren’t playing a sport in the spring — when the softball season would theoretically be held — more than half said they would play softball.
The district’s work included a cost analysis for what it would cost to bring the sport to Casper’s two big high schools, Kelly Walsh and Natrona County. In all, it would cost around $96,359 to start the programs, assuming a varsity and junior varsity squad at both schools.
The academic steering committee decided to support the softball effort and send the proposal to ask the state to “put us on the list” of districts that would have teams, as Superintendent Steve Hopkins put it, to a full vote before the board on April 8.
At the full board meeting a few hours after the academic steering committee decided to send , another wave of softball supporters filled the seats. Typically, the board hears public comment first before going into its agenda. Sensing that much of the input from the public would be about softball, the board asked Wilcox to come up again and explain to the audience where the district was in considering adding the sport.
Wilcox called the survey results “very strong” and said the numbers showed the support was there.
“Well, just to boil that down, we’re looking to support these girls, right?” board member Kevin Christopherson asked Wilcox after the administrator finished his rundown.
Wilcox replied that the full board would vote in early April to support the push to have softball be sanctioned by the activities association. Rita Walsh, the board’s chairwoman, added that academic steering had supported it.
Christopherson told the crowd that Natrona County would be supporting it, and if Natrona County is, other districts would, too.