Mining industries say foreign land ownership legislation threatens Wyoming jobs

Some Republican lawmakers have sought to restrict foreign ownership of Wyoming land in recent years, but doing so could put mining industry jobs and tax revenue at risk. That’s what energy industry spokespeople told the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee Thursday during a meeting in Buffalo.

“Foreign ownership in Sweetwater County and Southwest Wyoming is a benefit to the state,” Jody Levin, speaking on behalf of the trona industry and the Wyoming Mining Association, told lawmakers.

Wyoming is one of several states whose conservative politicians have taken an interest in restricting or monitoring foreign ownership of land, according to a Legislative Service Office memo. Supporters of the legislation say it’s a matter of safety and national security. But concerns over enforcement, the potential for violating the Federal Fair Housing Act — which prohibits discrimination based on national origin — and private property rights, among other things, have kept more restrictive bills from crossing the finish line.

That hasn’t stopped some politicians from trying. But critics of the legislation note that three of Wyoming’s four trona mining companies are owned by foreign parties, which provide “some of the best, high-paying jobs in Wyoming,” Levin said.

Committee member Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) echoed that sentiment.

“The foreign ownership of trona mines in Sweetwater County is a benefit to the county and to the state of Wyoming,” he said at the meeting.

Wyoming’s trona mines employed 2,225 workers as of 2018, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. But it goes well beyond trona, too, Levin told lawmakers, pointing to foreign ownership of uranium and rare earth mines in the state.

The state constitution has so far served as a buffer against measures targeting foreign ownership. It asserts that “no distinction shall ever be made by law between resident aliens and citizens as to the possession, taxation, enjoyment and descent of property.”

Appetite for such legislation, however, has only grown fiercer among some lawmakers, including members of the hard-line Freedom Caucus who evoked rarely used rules to revive failed legislation during the 2024 budget session.

Those attempts failed, but industry took note of the political winds.

“Given the number of bill drafts the last couple of years on this topic, the Wyoming Mining Association, and the trona industry specifically, did request this as an interim topic,” Levin told lawmakers.

Now, the Appropriations Committee is pursuing the topic in the off-season, known as the interim, when lawmakers meet to study topics that require more time and resources than what is available during the session.

The committee — whose membership mostly leans toward the traditional wing of the Republican Party — shares the industry’s concern with striking a balance.

“The Committee will consider regulatory measures to ensure transparency, fairness, and protection of domestic interests without hindering foreign investments from non-adversarial countries that benefit the State of Wyoming,” according to the Legislature’s list of 2024 interim topics.

The endeavor comes at a time when some of the same lawmakers who have pushed to prohibit foreign ownership of land have accused Gov. Mark Gordon of not doing enough to protect mining jobs against the federal government’s proposed plans to address climate change.

Background

Two 2024 senate bills related to foreign ownership of land were companion legislation. Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) was lead sponsor of both.

One measure would have given voters the choice to change the Wyoming Constitution to allow for the prohibition of ownership or inheritance of property by foreign parties that “pose a threat to national security.”

The other sought to bar foreign ownership of property “near critical infrastructure and military installations.” Foreign parties that already owned such property would be given four months after notice to dispose of the property. If not, the property would be sold at auction.

Both bills cleared the Senate, but failed in the House Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers declined to vote on either.

A third bill, sponsored by Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), however, was successful. Nethercott is a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Going into effect July 1, the law does not involve any restrictions, but rather creates definitions, reporting requirements and designations. It provides definitions for “critical infrastructure,” “critical infrastructure zone,” and “designated country or persons.”

It also requires the governor and the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security to designate critical infrastructure zones, and calls on county clerks to report land transactions that occur in or within one of those zones to the state.

From there, Homeland Security and the Division of Criminal Investigation, “upon reasonable suspicion,” may investigate “to determine if the conveyance involves a designated country or person or if the conveyance poses a threat to national or state security or to critical infrastructure,” according to the statute.

Meeting

Gov. Gordon’s Chief of Staff, Drew Perkins, spoke highly of Nethercott’s bill at Thursday’s meeting, noting its incremental approach.

“All it did right now was set up a framework to begin to identify real estate transactions within a certain proximity of critical infrastructure. It didn’t create prohibitions, didn’t do anything else,” Perkins said. “I think the idea was simply that the state would act as the eyes and ears of, particularly, the feds and then relay that information if there’s a problem with that.”

Going forward, Perkins urged lawmakers to be cautious.

“I think you have to be incredibly careful because the risk of unintended consequences is very, very great,” Perkins said.

Levin said the main concerns for the trona industry were “broad definitions,” including the “definition of agriculture in the bill drafts that we’ve seen before the Legislature to date, that would include all land in Wyoming. So that’s very difficult. We also have concerns about the definition of critical infrastructure.”

Part of the problem is proximity, Levin said, noting the trona mines near Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Interstate 80 and major electrical lines. Other operations, such as soda ash processing plants, may be considered critical infrastructure.

“Those operations provide over 90% of the US soda ash market. So they are strategic assets to the United States,” Levin said. “So we find ourselves in a massive quandary. To just be honest, there is not a great way of trying to figure out this issue.”

Depending on those definitions, it’s not great for business, Craig Rood with Project West told Lawmakers. Project West, which has both English and Turkish investors, is planning to build a new trona mine and soda ash processing facility west of Green River.

“If there is proposed legislation hanging out there, it causes pause for our investors as we’re doing a big project like this,” Rood said.

While the committee did not take any formal action Thursday, Chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) suggested the committee form a working group.

“There may be another four or five bills that hit the floor next session,” Nicholas said. “To be in a mode where we’re not fighting those bills, if we have something in draft, or that we can review this fall, and have something in our holster, where we pull it out or not, I think that would be worth the effort to do so.”

The Appropriations Committee will next meet in September.

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