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By Kevin Killough, State Energy Reporter
Wyoming legislators wrestled with a pair of bills Thursday that seek to ban foreign citizens and companies from owning land and mineral resources in Wyoming.
Both passed out of the House Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee, but one of them that would ban foreign ownership of agricultural land squeaked through on a 5-4 vote.
If passed, House Bill 116 would ban property ownership of more than 1 acre in the state by people, businesses or governments from Russia, China or other nations designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. Any current owners would be forced to sell their land within two years.
The U.S. Department of State lists four nations as state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
House Bill 88 would do the same for agricultural land, but it applies broadly to any foreign ownership and contains a grandfather clause for current owners.
The issue of foreign ownership of land and mineral resources is a rising concern across the United States.
Rep. Bill Allemand, R-Midwest, who sponsored House Bill 116, said he had received many supportive emails for the bill.
About 10 states already have banned or restricted foreign ownership of agricultural land, and there are discussions of federal legislation to achieve the same on a national scale.
U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyoming, told Cowboy State Daily she supports the move on the state and federal levels to protect land from foreign ownership, especially China,.
“We must get real about fighting back against the Chinese Communist Party and its desire to control the world’s economy,” Hageman said. “Currently, there are over 426,000 acres of Wyoming land held by foreign entities – and that number is only increasing each year.
“Beyond the number of acres owned, the locations of these acres are suspect – farmland near military bases, as an example. China is an adversary of the United States and we should do everything possible to limit their holdings in our country.”
Allemand said the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 35 million acres of agricultural land is owned by foreign citizens or businesses.
To illustrate his concerns, he said that a company from one of the four countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism bought an oil field with about 130 stripper wells on it, which are wells that are nearing the end of their economical life. The company operated the field for two or three years, then abandoned it.
Since these were old wells, they weren’t bonded, he said.
“Now we’re stuck with their mess,” Allemand added about Wyoming being left with the expense and effort to plug those abandoned wells.
Allemand acknowledged that many orphan wells were left behind by American companies, but in those cases there is some recourse. He said he had originally drafted the HB 116 to prohibit any foreign ownership, but decided to limit it to just specific nations.
“I just looked at the really, really bad actors that would make Wyoming unsafe,” Allemand said.
Rep. Dalton Banks, R-Cowley, who is sponsoring House Bill 88, said that at the end of 2021, foreign investors owned 426,000 acres of agricultural land in 20 of Wyoming’s 23 counties, according to the USDA. This figure had doubled from 2010 to 2020.
Johnson, Platte and Weston counties had no foreign owners of agricultural land. Albany County has the highest with about 109,000 acres under foreign ownership.
He said that Saudi, Japanese and Chinese companies are the top exporters of alfalfa hay in the United States, and China accounted for 55% of all alfalfa exports from the U.S. in 2021.
Brett Moline, director of public and governmental affairs for the Wyoming Farm Bureau, said the organization supports bans on foreign ownership of any land in Wyoming.
Moline was asked about potential impact to land values, and said that when reducing the number of buyers, the potential is there to decrease land values as a result.
Jim Magagna, representing the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association and the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, said that the organizations had adopted policies at their annual conventions that aligns with Banks’ bill. The policy the associations support applies to specific countries, including those who are state sponsors of terrorism.
Magagna had some reservations about language in the bills that applies to individuals because, he said, sometimes people bring knowledge or technology that benefit America and its citizens.
Wyoming Secretary of State Chuck Gray testified in support of both bills.
He said foreign ownership of agricultural land has increased exponentially, and six states have banned foreign ownership.
“At a time of increasing food insecurity, supply chain issues and many national security threats, House Bill 88 ensures one of Wyoming’s most important assets maintains its protection,” Gray said.
Mary Lankford, a lobbyist for the County Clerks Association of Wyoming, said the association takes no position on the bills, but she raised some concerns over how they would be implemented.
The bill would have county clerks reporting to the secretary of state about any purchases of land by foreign governments or persons. A county clerk, Lankford said, really has no way of knowing if the buyer is a foreign person, agent or government. They only collect documents and fees according to the state’s statutory requirements.
Numerous questions were asked about how the secretary of state would identify and report foreign owners who own or were purchasing land in Wyoming.
Gray said it was possible to incorporate that data into the office’s software.
Questions also were raised about how Allemand’s bill would impact the mineral extraction industry, as it applies to any property ownership by foreign individuals or entities.
Craig Rood, director of public relations and government affairs for Sisecam, a trona mine in southwest Wyoming, said the mine is owned by a Turkish company. It’s been there for 60 years, and the company is in the middle of permitting a $5 billion project.
While Turkey is not on the list of countries that would be banned under the bill, that could change. With so much investment in Wyoming, these kinds of prohibitions create uncertainty for large investors, Rood said.
“Legislation like this makes us a little nervous,” Rood said.
Other comments were made about Canadian and Australian mining companies operating in Wyoming.
Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, noted that the Wyoming Constitution specifically forbids making a distinction between resident aliens and citizens as to the possession, enjoyment and descent of property.
“I think both of these bills have facially unconstitutional provisions built into them,” Crago said, adding that he wasn’t trying to kill the bills, but only improve their language.
Laurie Urbigkit, representing Wyoming realtors, took no position on the bills, but explained that the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on national origin. So, realtors couldn’t enforce or report on any foreign individuals or companies engaging in real estate transactions.
The bills were amended to remove provisions against foreign individuals, as well as some other language that would impact land leased for agriculture.
Both bills moved out of committee.
Crago cast the only vote against House Bill 116. He also voted against House Bill 88, along with Reps. John Conrad, R-Mountain View, Bob Davis, R-Baggs, and John Eklund, R-Cheyenne, chair of the committee.
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