Who is Levi Sap Nei Thang and why is she buying up hundreds of oil and gas leases in Utah and across the West?

(Scott Sonner | AP file photo) On Nov. 7, 2017, Raul Morales, right, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's deputy state director for Nevada, looks at a map of sage grouse habitat areas on BLM lands in Nevada and Northeastern California during a public meeting in Sparks, Nev. Federal land managers have withdrawn more than 500 square miles of public land from a swath of eastern Nevada where oil and gas drilling leases were scheduled to be auctioned off on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Critics say rock-bottom oil prices have led to rank speculation in government leasing of oil and gas drilling rights.

The federal government recently finished a series of rather standard auctions for new oil and gas leases in Utah and nearby states. And one glaring thing stood out.

Most of the parcels offered, including 16 of the 22 in Utah, were bought by a self-described humanitarian, entrepreneur and author from Myanmar.

Levi Sap Nei Thang has no known history in the energy business, although she has seen success developing fragrances and designing handbags, according to her website. Despite her lack of experience, she has gone on a major spending binge in recent months, buying up rights to drill for publicly owned hydrocarbon deposits across six Western states.

Thang bought 108 federal leases from the Bureau of Land Management during its last round of quarterly sales, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars acquiring rights to drill on thousands of acres spread across five states. She has also purchased 124 state leases since July from New Mexico and Wyoming.

Some observers say Thang’s acquisitions indicate just how far the BLM’s leasing program has “gone off the rails” under President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, promoting rank speculation over the public interest. The BLM spends thousands of dollars reviewing proposed leases, even if they have low to no potential.

Critics argue now is not the time for the feds to be selling oil and gas leases because demand has become so weak after the pandemic depressed oil prices. Accordingly, critics complain, federal leases have been selling at bargain-basement prices, which invites speculators to buy and hold them in the hopes a serious energy developer will purchase them for high prices later.

This process consumes the BLM’s limited resources without providing much in the way of public benefits, while skewing land management priorities toward fossil fuels at the expense of other values, according to Landon Newell, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Reached Friday, Thang denied she was speculating, saying she plans to develop her Utah leases, for which she paid about $77,000.

“I always wanted to be an owner of oil and gas drilling,” she said. “People have contacted me to see if I would sell and I said no. They said they would pay a little more.”

The leases are near Richfield and in Millard County. Thang said the pandemic has sidelined her other businesses, “so this is the right time to focus on oil and gas for me.”

According to Interior’s leasing guidelines, anyone can acquire a BLM lease as long the person is a U.S. citizen older than 18 and has no outstanding debts to the federal government. Thang told The Salt Lake Tribune that she is not a citizen, but a “legal permanent resident” of the United States.

As is the BLM’s custom, it won’t issue the leases to Thang until officials have reviewed the bids for compliance with resource management plans and other policies, according to an agency spokesman.

While noncitizens are barred from holding oil and gas leases, federal law does allow these public assets to be acquired by corporations organized under U.S. laws. That appears to be the path Thang is taking.

According to federal records, Thang participated in six BLM auctions in August and September under a recently formed limited liability company, or LLC, named after her and listing a headquarters in Los Angeles. She said she has acquired federal leases previously but under a different company name. She declined to provide the name of that firm.

At the BLM’s Sept. 22 auction for Montana leases, Thang’s LLC bought 21 of the 38 parcels offered, including one she won with a $131,440 bid, spending a total of $345,000.

Earlier last month, she bought 10 of the 11 parcels offered at the BLM’s Nevada auction, records show. She scooped up 40 leases offered at New Mexico’s Aug. 26-27 sale. And at Colorado’s Sept. 24 sale, she acquired 21 of the 55 offered. Thang registered for the BLM’s September sale for Wyoming but did not submit any winning bids.

Thang has been equally busy buying up state leases. At Wyoming’s July 8 oil and gas auction, for example, she bought 95 of the 163 state leases offered, bidding as high as $200 an acre. And at New Mexico’s three most recent monthly auctions, which were conducted through sealed bids, she won 29 of the 44 leases offered in the rich Permian Basin, where she dropped $1.6 million.

Thang was born in Myanmar, has lived in the United States for the past 20 years, she said, and is currently based in Southern California. Her website says she writes cookbooks and poetry, travels, produces cologne and skin care products and promotes Christian faith. Her two children were born in the United States, and she has returned to her native country in Southeast Asia to perform humanitarian work, she said.

Thang’s website says she manages her families properties and “champions environmental protection by planting trees and flowers.” It describes her as “a source of new ideas, a symbol of hard work and perseverance, best known for her work of compassion among the vulnerable.”

None of this, of course, qualifies someone to develop oil and gas deposits. That someone with Thang’s background could buy rights to 108 federal parcels in the span of a few weeks raises troubling issues about the federal leasing program, according to SUWA’s Newell.

Such leases are essentially a contract giving the holder an exclusive right to extract oil and gas from the leased parcel as long as it’s producing within 10 years. Indiscriminate leasing upsets environmentalists because these leases obligate the BLM to manage the land to accommodate future energy production.

“The Trump administration’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda has fueled this extreme example of lease speculation,” Newell said. “In a matter of weeks, the Bureau of Land Management sold hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands across the American West for fossil fuel development, further doubling down on the worsening climate crisis. On top of that, the bureau sold these leases to a single company, with no known oil and gas experience, and generally at rock bottom prices. Even if you accepted the Trump administration’s devotion to fossil fuel development, and ignored its devastating impacts to the planet, these leasing decisions stand out as outlandish.”

The Interior Department is loath to issue oil and gas leases to people who have no intention of developing them, as was shown four years ago when Utah author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams and her husband bought two leases in Grand County. Officials later rescinded the leases, citing Williams’ public disclosures that she hoped to keep the parcels’ oil and gas from being extracted.

The Williamses are challenging that decision.

But unlike the noted Utah author, Thang said she wants to get into the energy business with the aim of helping others.

“I am grateful for the county I was born in, and grateful for the country I am living in,” she said. “All my profits I donate to other countries. I live very simple.”