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LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette 

The Yellowstone River winds through Yankee Jim Canyon near Gardiner where about 12,000 years ago a large landslide blocked the stream.


Energy
Wyoming’s energy advances spur protests

An environmental group is trying to block one of the largest oil and gas developments on Wyoming public land due to air quality concerns.

In a petition sent to the Interior Department’s review board, WildEarth Guardians argues that Normally Pressured Lance – a 3,500-acre gas proposal in Sublette County– would violate the Clean Air Act.

The $17 billion project was approved by the Bureau of Land Management in August. It could generate up to 1,000 jobs in western Wyoming. But its ambitious scope has sparked frustration and concern from multiple groups for its potential impact to sage grouse winter grounds — the only known wintering habitat for the bird in Wyoming — and migration of pronghorn through part of the NPL field. WildEarth Guardians is arguing that the project also poses air quality risks in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin.

Jonah Energy has often defended NPL since it took over the project from Encana Corp. in 2014, noting the limited long-term effects on the surface due to horizontal drilling and the practice of placing multiple wells on single pads. Jonah is currently an operator in the Upper Green, where Wyoming’s strictest air quality rules include using infrared equipment to detect methane leaks from infrastructure, a cost that the company says is covered by the added revenue of captured gas.

Congresswoman Liz Cheney was among the Wyoming political leaders to applaud NPL’s approval in an August statement. Cheney said she would continue to press for a similar result in other energy projects in the state. She has also recently sought to institute fees on protests of oil and gas projects to discourage frivolous delays of energy development.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals has 45 days to respond to the WildEarth protest.

***

Wyoming energy development on federally managed lands has been a growing source of contention since improvements in the price of crude reinvigorated the oil and gas industry post-downturn.

That vigor has also been spurred, some argue, by the political support from the Trump administration, which has streamlined leasing of oil and gas parcels and tightened timelines for environmental and public review.

The Royalty Policy Committee, a group formed by the Interior Department last year, is considering a recommendation to the Trump administration that would further streamline the permit-to-drill process by allowing some wells to move forward with a notice of drilling rather than a permit.

This new direction on energy has outraged others in the West. About two-thirds of Wyoming’s natural gas comes from federal leases. The federal red tape that industry argues hinders its progress is prized by groups that represent sportsmen, wildlife and the environment.

Snipping that red tape was expected to drive lawsuits.

***

A federal judge in Idaho recently weighed in on the expedited leasing process regarding sage grouse habitat, with comments that appeared to echo many in the conservation community.

“It is well-settled that public involvement in oil and gas leasing is required ... The question here is whether (the expedited process) sufficiently allows for such public involvement,” the judge wrote in his decision. “The answer must be a complete ‘yes.’ Here, the answer is ‘not quite.’”

His decision, a small part of a larger lawsuit, means some upcoming sales of oil and gas leases in Wyoming will be processed as they were before the Trump administration took over. The older system, from 2010, has longer public input timelines.

Sage grouse management has been a unique challenge for Wyoming, and the state has been the largest and most effective of the Western states in developing management plans for the bird.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal initiated a state approach nearly a decade ago to stave off an endangered species listing. The result of that work, fostered under Wyoming’s current Gov. Matt Mead, was a set of strategies to prioritize habitats with the most birds and limit development, from roads to oil wells, in areas where the birds reside.

The Wyoming approach was taken up by the Bureau of Land Management. A decision in late 2015 to not list the bird as an endangered species credited those strategies for its decision.

Last year, the Trump administration called for a short review of the exhaustive plans, and agencies are currently reworking and likely eliminating some key provisions of those sage grouse protections.

Wyoming was a moderating voice in what became a heated political debate over changing the BLM’s sage grouse plans.

Mead, who is widely credited for his leadership in fostering a diverse sage grouse coalition, repeatedly called for a cautious, apolitical approach to changing the plans.

Wyoming has intervened in the Idaho lawsuit to defend itself against the impact on revenue streams should the environmental groups succeed. It also wants a seat at the table any time there is a question of how the bird is managed in Wyoming.

In regard to the bird, delaying or stopping industry could “compromise Wyoming’s ability to maintain a balance between conservation of the greater sage grouse and the economic needs of its citizens,” the state argued in court documents filed to justify its intervention.

Wyoming isn’t necessarily coming down on one side or the other in the public participation debate, said Mike McGrady, policy advisor for Mead.

The disputed leasing process hasn’t impeded the governor’s office and state agencies from their input on oil and gas development, despite shorter timelines and larger sales. Government agencies are involved early in the leasing process, before citizens have a chance to weigh in.

The governor’s office was part of a compromise with the Bureau of Land Management regarding a recent oil and gas lease sale that overlaps with a mule deer corridor in western Wyoming. The deal, brokered by the state and BLM, may limit oil and gas drilling directly in the corridor, but has not alleviated the concern of critics.

There was less time to work through that issue, but enough, McGrady said.

“We were still able to get our job done.”


National
AP
FBI interviews accuser; Yale friend remembers heavy drinker

WASHINGTON — FBI agents on Sunday interviewed one of the three women who have accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as Republicans and Democrats quarreled over whether the bureau would have enough time and freedom to conduct a thorough investigation before a high-stakes vote on his nomination to the nation’s highest court.

The White House insisted it was not “micromanaging” the new one-week review of Kavanaugh’s background but some Democratic lawmakers claimed the White House was keeping investigators from interviewing certain witnesses. President Donald Trump, for his part, tweeted that no matter how much time and discretion the FBI was given, “it will never be enough” for Democrats trying to keep Kavanaugh off the bench.

And even as the FBI explored the past allegations that have surfaced against Kavanaugh, another Yale classmate came forward to accuse the federal appellate judge of being untruthful in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the extent of his drinking in college.

In speaking to FBI agents, Deborah Ramirez detailed her allegation that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party in the early 1980s when they were students at Yale University, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of a confidential investigation.

At least three women have accused Kavanaugh of years-ago misconduct. He denies all the claims.

The person familiar with Ramirez’s questioning, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said she also provided investigators with the names of others who she said could corroborate her account.

But Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, has not been contacted by the FBI since Trump on Friday ordered the agency to take another look at the nominee’s background, according to a member of Ford’s team.

In a statement released Sunday, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s said he is “deeply troubled by what has been a blatant mischaracterization by Brett himself of his drinking at Yale.” Charles “Chad” Ludington, who now teaches at North Carolina State University, said he was friend of Kavanaugh’s at Yale and that Kavanaugh was “a frequent drinker, and a heavy drinker.”

“On many occasions I heard Brett slur his words and saw him staggering from alcohol consumption, not all of which was beer. When Brett got drunk, he was often belligerent and aggressive,” Ludington said. While saying that youthful drinking should not condemn a person for life, Ludington said he was concerned about Kavanaugh’s statements under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Speaking to the issue of the scope of the FBI’s investigation, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said White House counsel Don McGahn, who is managing Kavanaugh’s nomination, “has allowed the Senate to dictate what these terms look like, and what the scope of the investigation is.”

“The White House isn’t intervening. We’re not micromanaging this process. It’s a Senate process. It has been from the beginning, and we’re letting the Senate continue to dictate what the terms look like,” Sanders said.

A committee member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday that testimony would be taken from Ramirez and Kavanaugh’s high school friend Mark Judge, who has been named by two of three women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

The third woman, Julie Swetnick, accused Kavanaugh and Judge of excessive drinking and inappropriate treatment of women in the early 1980s, among other accusations. Kavanaugh has called her accusations a “joke.” Judge has said he “categorically” denies the allegations.

Court records reviewed by The Associated Press show Swetnick was involved in at least six legal cases over the past 25 years. Along with the lawsuit filed by a former employer in November 2000, the cases include a personal injury suit she filed in 1994 against the Washington, D.C., regional transit authority.

Swetnick’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, told the AP that court cases involving her have no bearing on the credibility of her claims about Kavanaugh. Avenatti said the suit from her ex-employer — it was dismissed a month after it was filed — was “completely bogus, which is why it was dismissed almost immediately.”

In its civil complaint in a state court in Oregon, the company said Swetnick, a software engineer, was an employee for a few weeks before its human resources department received a report that she engaged in “unwelcome sexual innuendo and inappropriate conduct” toward two male co-workers at a business lunch.

The lawsuit said that Swetnick in turn accused Webtrends of subjecting her to “physically and emotionally threatening and hostile conditions” and that she claimed that she was sexually harassed by four co-workers. The co-workers denied the allegations, the suit said.

Company officials later determined, the suit said, that Swetnick provided false information on her employment application. The suit alleged that she misrepresented the length of time she worked at a previous employer and falsely claimed that she earned an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry from Johns Hopkins University.

Avenatti said that “whether she has a college degree or not does not matter as to whether she is a sexual assault victim.”


Govt-and-politics
spotlight
307 POLITICS
307 Politics: We're back, a taxing situation, plus campaign drama

Municipal governments in Wyoming stand to lose more than $100 million in direct funding to offset anticipated shortfalls in the education budget.

With that reality looming, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee met two weeks ago in Buffalo to discuss a number of new ways to provide funding to cities, towns and counties.

Lawmakers considered one bill that, if passed, would allow municipalities to have greater freedom to tax themselves independently. Critics said the plan — while offering much-desired flexibility for cities and towns — was flawed because it would disproportionately benefit large cities and towns and would not serve as a true replacement for the state’s direct funding.

Their argument: a large town with lots of tourists or strong retail can generate revenue small towns with no retail or visitor traffic can’t, thereby creating a system where there are winners and losers.

This leaves state legislators with a challenge. The education budget needs funding and will likely make up part of their shortfall from the $105 million in direct aid municipalities currently receive. That replacement, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association has argued, must be backed with real money, must not exacerbate inequalities between one town versus another and should allow revenues generated in a locality to remain in that locality.

This, though a formidable challenge, is not impossible. At the Sept. 21st meeting, the WCCA — while not offering direct proposals to solve the problem — did offer committee members three examples of possible actions to replace that funding, supported by rough calculations of how each scenario would impact local budgets.

Option A would allocate an increased amount of what the state already collects in sales tax revenues to cities and counties, ensuring local governments get to retain more of the tax revenues raised there. At the same time, it would raise the statewide sales tax from 4 percent to 4.25 percent.

While largely benefitting communities with high sales tax revenues, this option would provide some municipalities a real replacement to direct aid without increasing taxes: In total, a 3 percent boost to the local share of statewide sales tax, combined with a quarter percent increase in state tax, would net municipal governments approximately $61 million over the next two years, while counties would see an increase of roughly $21 million.

If paired with slight increases to residential, commercial and industrial property taxes of a quarter of a percent, this proposal would create $90.3 million in new revenues for cities, towns and counties over two years, leaving the state on the hook for $21.6 million in backfill funding to make up for the difference in the money it took and what communities could expect with a new model. However, this option would eliminate the need for backfill funding in Campbell, Converse, Johnson, Laramie, Lincoln, Sublette, Sweetwater and Teton Counties, as well as in 12 separate municipalities.

This option, according to estimates, could result in $30.9 million in direct distribution savings to the legislative stabilization reserve account (known as the LSRA, or general fund) as well as more than $13.2 million in new revenues to the general fund and school accounts, amounting to $44.2 million in benefit to the state.

Option B would implement a larger splitting of the sales tax revenues (a 4 percent increase for local governments) as well as reinstating a 4 percent sales tax on groceries, a prospect that has been a politically tricky area over the years. Using similar math, this would create slightly less in new revenues while also costing the state several million dollars in net revenue, thanks to $33.5 million in sales taxes transferred to local governments, compared to $24.9 million in grocery taxes gained.

Altogether, the state would be on the hook for $21.3 million in backfill to make up for — less than under Option A. However, the same nine counties and 12 municipalities would see high enough increases to make up for their lost distribution. With more than $31.1 million in savings to the LSRA plus close to $3 million in new income to the general fund, the state would see $34 million in benefit.

Option C would raise the state severance cap — a statutorily created cap that now directs the first $155 million in taxes paid by mineral companies to seven different agencies including cities, towns and counties — to $200 million. It also raises the sales tax split to a 36 percent share for local governments and adds a 2 percent sales tax on food. Though this plan would save the LSRA $36.4 million, it would tank revenues to the general fund by $51.6 million, resulting in a $15.2 million hit to the state each year. The state would only be on the hook to replace $16 million in lost revenues to municipalities under this scenario; however, the overall hit to the general fund would make this option unlikely.

The state could — if it chooses to — make up for some of the shortfalls by implementing other revenue options, each of which have their own pitfalls. These include increasing the property tax ratio to roughly 11 percent (leaving municipalities $22 million short), increasing the statewide sales tax to 4.85 percent (essentially amounting to a regressive tax on municipalities, who will likely vote against local option taxes as a result), shifting more statewide sales tax to locals (killing the state’s general fund) and imposing a statewide lodging tax, one of the few revenue options with no victims: a 3 percent increase, according to WCCA estimates, could result in $19.2 million annually.

Throne Launches Massive Ad Buy

Earlier this week, the campaign for Democratic candidate for governor Mary Throne announced it would be making an “unprecedented” six-figure, multi-platform ad buy ahead of the general election this November.

According to a press release from the campaign, the ads will appear on Facebook, YouTube, Hulu and as pre-roll video across the internet based on people’s ZIP code and voter profiling. The first ad — as has been a theme of her campaign — will focus on healthcare.

“As the only major party gubernatorial candidate advocating for Medicaid expansion, Mary has a plan to help 20,000 Wyomingites get affordable coverage, support our rural providers, and lower premium costs for everyone,” a statement from the campaign said. “Mary Throne is the only candidate with a serious plan to protect those with pre-existing conditions.”

Other campaign drama?

Dark money influences have already begun to creep into Wyoming politics this election season.

According to Democratic campaign sources for Throne and U.S. Senate candidate, Gary Trauner, two “push polls” — biased electioneering communications disguised as legitimate polls — have been taking place in recent weeks, prompting both candidates to release statements. Trauner said the poll conducted against him was a “sleazy and a tried-and-true part of the D.C. Playbook that people in D.C. use to stay in power at the expense of serving the public.” The poll implied he would not respect Second Amendment rights, he said, and ties him with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ambitions to bring single payer healthcare to the United States.

“It’s a bunch of B.S.,” said Trauner. “This is what they do in D.C., create labels, point fingers and make stuff up to create fear and division with outright false and misleading information.”

The Star-Tribune was told that no recording or additional information on the poll was available.

The campaign for incumbent John Barrasso distanced itself from the poll, adding in a statement “Having already run multiple campaigns for office, Mr. Trauner’s positions on these issues are well known.”

Another push poll was released about Throne this week, prompting her team to respond:

“We don’t know who funded the push poll, but we do have a message for them,” said Throne’s campaign manager, Matthew Herdman. “First, we’re flattered that you’re threatened enough about us to resort to dishonest tactics. Second, if you’ve got something to say, say it publicly and put your name on it.”

With little to go on and no updated campaign finance data to speak of, the source of these expenditures will be hard to track. The statewide campaign finance filing deadline is Oct. 30.

Eye On Washington

Here’s a brief look at what your federal representatives did in Washington this week:

Sen. John Barrasso, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, gave some remarks before a hearing on sea plastic pollution, acknowledging the problem but not providing any proposed actions. He noted National Geographic had equated the issue to one as monumental as climate change. Barrasso also introduced a bill in the Senate Natural Resources Committee to “provide certainty with respect to the timing of Department of Energy decisions to approve or deny applications to export natural gas, and for other purposes.” The text for the bill is not yet available.

Sen. Mike Enzi was fairly quiet in an otherwise wild week in Washington. On Tuesday, Enzi co-sponsored a bill to modernize federal grant reporting, the text of which is not yet available. A resolution he has been involved with Sen. Barrasso on to reauthorize the Congressional Award Act also made some progress this week, and on Tuesday, he a hosted a U.S. Senate subcommittee roundtable on rural health with respect to Wyoming.

“It struck me that as we explore health care costs in more depth, we should also take a serious look at health care in rural America to understand the unique challenges that rural patients and providers face — how those challenges can affect the cost of care and learn more about how our current policies are working and where they might be improved,” Enzi said.

Video of the testimony can be found here.

Congresswoman Liz Cheney introduced legislation to remove endangered species act protections for grizzly bears after a federal judge’s ruling that they be returned.

Have any suggestions on how to make this newsletter better? Story tips? Anecdotes? Tidbits? Let me know! Email me at nick.reynolds@trib.com, call me at 307.266.0634 or follow me on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds.