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Star Valley's Peter Visser pulls ahead of Jackson's Mac Staryk to win the Class 4A 3200-meter run last year at the Wyoming State High School Track and Field Championships in Casper.

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Wyoming extends all current health orders through July 15 without adding new restrictions

The three broad public health orders that were set to expire this week have been extended, with no changes, through mid-July, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced Monday, as the state continues to grapple with a spike in coronavirus cases.

It’s the first time in six weeks that orders have been extended without being loosened, a reflection of the nearly 300 cases — out of 1,144 confirmed since mid-March — that have been identified in the past two weeks. The extended orders, effective until July 15, still allow for opened businesses, large outdoor gatherings and indoor gatherings of up to 250, all of which are permissible under certain circumstances.

“It is clear from the recent increase in cases statewide that the dual threat of COVID-19 to both the health of our citizens and the health of our economy is not going away,” Gordon said in a statement accompanying the release. “No one wants to see the progress we have made vanish, but that requires each of us to make a concerted effort to slow the spread of the virus. It is really simple and depends on everyone practicing good hygiene, social distancing and doing their best to wear a mask in public where social distancing isn’t possible. It’s the way you and our economy will both stay healthy.”

The governor’s office, in its announcement, notes that 25 percent “of Wyoming’s total number of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been identified in the past two weeks” and that this latest wave has touched “15 counties and reflects increased transmission within Wyoming communities.”

The state continues to “recommend the use of face coverings in public settings where it is not possible to stay physically apart.” The University of Wyoming announced Monday that effective immediately, all students and staff must wear face coverings on campus or while conducting UW business.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer, told the Star-Tribune last week that while the state has expanded its ability to test more people, the recent spike is not solely attributable to better testing. It’s reflective, she said, of “increased transmission” across the state. Indeed, the number of tests coming back positive is higher than it was earlier this month.

Still, testing is up — averaging more than 300 tests per day in June as of Friday, compared to 277 in May, 104 in April and 60 in March. And while there has been a surge in cases recently — with Uinta County now up to 140 cases as of Monday, from nine at the beginning of June — there has not been a jump in hospitalizations.

Thirty new cases were confirmed Monday, the second most in a single day. There have been 1,151 confirmed cases and 299 probable cases in Wyoming.

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Major Wyoming shale producer Chesapeake Energy files for bankruptcy

Major shale producer Chesapeake Energy filed for bankruptcy Sunday in an effort to restructure and shed $7 billion of debt.

Pending court approval, the Oklahoma City-based firm said it had secured $925 million in debtor-in-possession financing, or interim funding, to keep operations chugging along during bankruptcy proceedings, including in Wyoming. Chesapeake’s net debt load is approximately $8.62 billion.

“We are fundamentally resetting Chesapeake’s capital structure and business to address our legacy financial weaknesses and capitalize on our substantial operational strengths,” Doug Lawler, Chesapeake’s president and CEO, said in a statement. Lawler, a former Anadarko executive, came on to lead the company in 2013.

“By eliminating approximately $7 billion of debt and addressing the legacy contractual obligations that have hindered our performance, we are positioning Chesapeake to capitalize on our diverse operating platform and proven track record of improving capital and operating efficiencies and technical excellence,” he added.

Though the company eliminated a portion of its liabilities in recent years, outstanding legacy debts and contractual obligations have continued to weigh it down.

Chesapeake has been a dominant fixture in Wyoming’s oil and gas landscape for several years since it first set up shop in the state in the early 1990s.

Last year, Chesapeake produced nearly 9 million barrels of oil, ranking third in the state, according to data collected by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. So far, it has maintained its ranking in 2020. It also secured 96 permits to drill in Wyoming in 2019, the fourth most in the state.

Currently, Chesapeake is the seventh largest producer of natural gas in Wyoming. A vast majority of Chesapeake’s activity has been located in the Powder River Basin. The company started leasing land in the southern reaches of the basin and gradually expanded northward.

Mark Watson, supervisor of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said he was not surprised to hear of the bankruptcy announcement given the company’s high debt load. He’s also not worried about future cleanup liabilities falling on the state. 

Chesapeake’s wells are productive and relatively lucrative, he said. Even if the company did pivot to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case and liquidation, Watson doesn’t anticipate having trouble finding new owners. Watson called the trouble overshadowing the past few months during the pandemic “a nail in the coffin.”

According to Chesapeake, employees will continue to receive pay and benefits. The company told the Star-Tribune it employs approximately 1,900 workers across the country.

Founded in 1989 by the late wildcatter Aubrey McClendon, the company became known as an early trailblazer of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling technique used to extract oil and gas in unconventional shale formations.

Troubled legacy

The company has had a fair share of financial troubles and controversy over the past three decades.

On Friday, the company’s net worth was a meager $115 million, down from its peak of $37 billion in 2008 — a staggering 99 percent decrease.

In its early days, Chesapeake dominated the natural gas market, aggressively scooping up huge swaths of land in Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, Louisiana and beyond. But the influx of gas supply to the market — due in part to fellow operators also warming to fracking — led to a glut in the commodity. Natural gas prices started to wobble and deflate.

The 2008 economic recession and resulting energy price crash didn’t help. Nor did the 2015 oil and gas bust. In 2016, former CEO McClendon was charged and indicted for distorting oil and gas lease prices, in addition to unlawful collusion. The following day, he died in a car accident, which the coroner later ruled an accident.

The leading energy company has struggled to get back on its feet since then. Its often fallen short on its free cash flow, or the cash it has to reward investors or pay down its debt.

In its latest quarterly filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Chesapeake cited the increased volatility in oil and gas prices from the pandemic as reason for concern. “Based on our current forecast, we do not expect to be in compliance with our financial covenants beginning in the fourth quarter of 2020,” the filing stated.

Several analysts said Chesapeake’s strained finances were nothing new.

“This is a long overdue reckoning for a company that had overextended itself almost from the beginning,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy policy think tank.

Now faced with plunging energy demand and prices precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the once preeminent shale producer has voluntarily filed for bankruptcy.

According to Williams-Derry, Chesapeake’s filing may not be the last bankruptcy the energy world will see in the coming months.

“What I do think you can expect to see is that companies that are not in a good condition — the companies with a lot of debt, or companies that didn’t do what is called hedging, which is basically protecting themselves against price declines — those may be the companies that may be facing a significant risk of bankruptcy over the next six to nine months.”

That’s a poor position to be in at a time when banks and other lenders are adverse to doling out loans to energy companies, he said. The trend could also foreshadow the longer term economic uncertainty the fossil fuel sector may face.

The tough market conditions have forced Wyoming oil and gas producers to shut in wells and lay off workers in droves since March.

“We are in the midst of a difficult time for oil and natural gas and would expect more upheaval in the industry over the near to midterm,” Ryan McConnaughey, of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said of the current environment in an emailed statement. “While prices have increased from historic lows in recent weeks, they are still well below the break-even price for Wyoming producers — who contend with higher taxes and production costs here than their counterparts around the country.”

“I am, however, optimistic about the resiliency of our members,” he added.

The case will be heard in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas.

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Wyoming GOP members anticipate lawsuit after state party adopts bylaw changes

Some members of the Wyoming Republican Party expect to file a lawsuit against the state central committee after the party adopted a number of bylaw changes at its convention that critics argue are designed to consolidate power at the state level.

The changes, which were approved at the weekend gathering without debate, include a number of reforms meant to suppress dissent — a move that appears designed to quell the opposition to party leadership that some county parties have exhibited in the past year.

Changes include withholding financial resources from Republican candidates who do not vote in line with at least 80 percent of the party’s platform and rules forcing county committees to pay their dues. Some county parties, including Natrona County’s, refused to share fundraising with the state party last year.

Another change grants the state party the authority to punish any state or county official who violates those bylaws.

The changes will also subject members of the state party’s executive committee to a nondisclosure agreement and would give the state party additional oversight over policy changes at the county level.

Those objecting to the changes say the process used to adopt them was designed to silence critics within the party and force changes that dissenting groups within the party — including the Frontier Republicans — have attempted to defeat over the past year.

Attendees adopted a series of rules to speed up the agenda and enact the policy changes before the convention’s hard 4 p.m. Saturday deadline. After some members of the party attempted to pull some of the bylaw changes from the consent agenda to be voted on individually and slow down the vote, the full committee voted to approve all of the bylaw changes without debate, effectively ending the convention.

A number of delegates from Teton, Campbell, Laramie, Albany and Natrona counties were seen exiting the convention floor in protest following the vote.

In comments on the convention floor regarding one of the bylaw changes, Laramie County delegate Caitlin Long suggested that a lawsuit will likely be filed in the coming weeks regarding the process.

“I’ve just found out that there is a lawsuit that is going to be filed,” she said on the floor. “And I’m putting it on the record as evidence from this.”

Long did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend. Natrona County Republican Party Chairman Joe McGinley said Sunday a second lawsuit could potentially emerge as well and will likely address potential bylaw violations that occurred during the convention.

The convention — an only-in-person affair held at the Cam-Plex in Gillette — featured 347 delegates, down from the 463 who were eligible to vote at a convention held remotely last month because of the coronavirus.

Under the rules adopted at the convention, nobody was allowed to vote remotely and had to instead appoint an alternate to attend and vote in their place.

The party had a variance from the Wyoming Department of Health, according to a spokesperson in the governor’s office, as well as a health plan approved by the Campbell County Health Department. There were hard limits of four people per table, and attendees were recommended to wear masks, according to a copy of the health plan obtained by the Star-Tribune.

A socially distanced “breakout room” was available, but only two delegates used them, Chairman Frank Eathorne told conventiongoers.

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Gillette police cite Albany County GOP chair, say he instigated fight that left him in hospital

Gillette police have cited Michael Pearce with assault and battery after the Albany County Republican Party chair allegedly instigated a fight with Carbon County Republican Party Chairman Joey Correnti that resulted in Pearce being hospitalized.

Pearce told the Star-Tribune this weekend that he and Correnti had been involved in a fight during the Wyoming Republican Convention in Gillette that left Pearce with a broken ankle, dislocated shoulder and injured neck.

A Gillette Police Department news release corroborates Pearce’s claim that he and Correnti were involved in an argument that escalated to a point of violence. However, the release from Lt. Brent Wasson says Pearce began the fight by punching Correnti in the head; Pearce previously told the Star-Tribune he was unsure who began the physical altercation. He said he did not remember all of the details of the fight because he was left unconscious. Wasson’s statement cites witnesses who said “Pearce was responsible for the escalation and Correnti was defending himself by taking Pearce to the ground.”

The lieutenant said he was not aware of there being any video of the incident.

According to the news release, Correnti held Pearce down until someone else stepped in. Correnti said Pearce was intoxicated and Pearce admitted to drinking, the lieutenant said. While Pearce admitted to consuming two “tall” gin and tonics throughout the day, he has denied that he was intoxicated during the incident.

Gillette police say Pearce damaged Correnti’s eyeglasses and hearing aid. The incident became physical after the two chairmen moved outside the venue, police said.

Correnti’s lawyer, Steven Titus of Gillette, said he was in the process of conducting his own investigation into the incident to find exactly what happened Saturday night, saying that Correnti did “nothing wrong” during the altercation.

“We don’t know what Mr. Pearce’s angle is on this, and we’re still trying to figure this out,” Titus said. “Mr. Pearce has a history of making misleading statements, and so, our goal is to find what his motivation is for lying and making these statements. But it seems, at this point, to be some sort of political motivation.”

Titus said further civil actions could be pending but that it was too early to elaborate on what they could be, adding “we’re keeping all options open.” He said his law office has an initial list of 20 to 30 attendees they plan on interviewing in relation to the case.

Following the publication Sunday of a Star-Tribune story about the fight, a number of officials in the Wyoming Republican Party — including Sheridan Rep. Mark Jennings, who says he witnessed the altercation himself —contradicted Pearce’s accounting of the events on social media.

Jennings said in a written statement that Pearce was heavily intoxicated and belligerent before punching Correnti without provocation, saying that Pearce was “screaming profanities” at Correnti before hitting his left jaw.

“It was obvious that Mr. Pearce was intoxicated and very agitated,” Jennings wrote. “As I neared their location I could hear Mr. Correnti say something like ‘Mike, let’s calm down and not interrupt the convention.’”

Jennings said Correnti — a veteran and a Republican candidate in a contested primary race in Wyoming House District 47 — was acting in self-defense when he restrained Pearce.

“Mr. Correnti did not strike Mr. Pearce at all, but immediately restrained his arm and took him to the ground as Mr. Pearce was still trying to attack him and continuing to curse at him,” Jennings wrote. “By this time a number of witnesses were coming to aid in the situation. At no time did Mr. Correnti punch or kick or act aggressively against Mr. Pearce other than to restrain him defensively taking him to the ground.”

Crystal Brogdon, an event coordinator at the convention, said she heard a number of profanities coming from the lobby while she was listening to keynote speaker Charlie Kirk’s presentation. She looked into the hall and saw Pearce following Correnti, she said. After alerting security and locking the doors to prevent people from flooding the lobby, she exited to see Correnti take down Pearce and hold him down in a bear hug while telling him repeatedly to calm down, she said.

While she did not witness Pearce throwing a punch, Brogdon said that she helped to restrain and watch Pearce after the fight had ended.

“He was so inebriated he couldn’t sit in the chair without falling over,” she said.

Brogdon denied that Pearce was ever unconscious, which he previously claimed.

The Wyoming Republican Party, which hosted the event, had not released a statement on the incident as of Monday afternoon. In a text message several hours after the incident on Saturday night, Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne said he had not heard anything about the incident. The Star-Tribune has reached out to Eathorne for further comment.

Pearce said in interviews both Sunday and Monday that he felt threatened by Correnti after an argument between the pair escalated, citing several instances of perceived aggression by Correnti toward people at the convention — behavior that multiple attendees also told the Star-Tribune they witnessed. The Gillette Police Department said it did not receive any other reports from the convention.

In an interview Monday, after the Gillette police announcement, Pearce disputed claims that Correnti tried to calm him down before the fight. He said he did not recall yelling profanities at Correnti or whether the two had been yelling at each other before the fight. Pearce said he felt the need to defend himself, as he believed Correnti could have “come at him at any second” and left Pearce feeling “cornered.”

“I remember coming out and being angry,” Pearce said Monday. “We were both angry. But that type of behavior ... that’s not me, unless I’ve been terribly provoked. As I’ve mentioned several times, I felt cornered, I felt like he was attacking me, and I got tired and felt like I had to do something for myself.”

Pearce is scheduled to appear in Gillete Municipal Court on Aug. 11.