A Myanmar-born US perfume entrepreneur became a curiosity last year when she became the nation’s top buyer of oil-and-gas leases at the federal auctions under the administration of then-US president Donald Trump — despite having no apparent energy background.
Since July last year, Levi Sap Nei Thang has spent about US$3.7 million on nearly 300 government leases covering almost 54,000 hectares in 12 US states. At the time, she told reporters that she was keen to produce oil on the parcels.
A Reuters examination of her dealings revealed that she pursued a different strategy: selling the leases to other Burmese immigrants at inflated prices after billing them as great investments on social media, according to interviews with seven buyers and others familiar with her business, along with sales agreements and leasing documents.
Reuters confirmed four cases in which Thang sold one or more drilling leases to Burmese immigrants for prices ranging from one-and-a-half to 13 times what she paid. Thang made nearly US$335,000 in the cases reviewed by Reuters, buying the leases for about US$215,000 and selling them almost immediately for more than US$550,000.
Three of Thang’s buyers told Reuters that they had met many others who described themselves as buyers of her leases, but Reuters could not determine the full scope of Thang’s lease sales, which are private transactions.
In October last year, Thang invited prospective buyers to Wyoming to meet her and tour potential oil-drilling parcels, according to a buyer who attended.
Videos posted on Facebook show her with groups of smiling people in windy, cold weather. Thang told the buyers that they were more like her “friends, siblings and families,” one video showed.
Federal and state records show that Thang has not transferred ownership of the drilling rights to the four buyers who told Reuters that they purchased leases from her.
Thang’s company is still listed as the owner of those parcels in US government records. Of the nearly 300 leases Thang won at state and federal auctions, only two have been reassigned, both to the same new owner, state and federal lease registries show.
To transfer ownership of a lease, buyer and seller must submit a signed form to the state or federal land office. Reuters could not ascertain why Thang’s company continued to be listed as the owner of parcels that buyers said they had bought from her and paid for.
In the biggest sale confirmed by Reuters, the owner of a sushi business in Texas, Tha Cin, gave Thang US$510,000 in multiple payments for two leases in New Mexico that Thang had bought for about US$200,000, according to Cin and her lawyer, as well as copies of the sale agreements and lease records.
Despite Cin’s purchase agreements with Thang, dated in early September last year, federal and state leasing documents earlier this month still showed Thang’s company as the owner of the parcels. That surprised Cin’s lawyer, Jeff Vaughan.
Cin said that she was moved by Thang’s spiritual references in Facebook videos.
“All our money was taken by the person who we believed and trusted, who talked about God all the time,” she said.
Three other buyers said that they have asked Thang to return their money. One said that she got her money back, and another said that he got only a portion back.
Thang and her lawyer did not answer Reuters’ questions about her oil-and-gas lease dealings. However, Thang on March 8 issued a statement on her Web site saying: “Everyone who purchased from me did so by their own will. I have the right to sell to who I want to, when I want to, and for what price I set.”
Thang’s lease-flipping illustrates vulnerabilities in the government’s oil-and-gas leasing program, which generates public revenue from development on federal lands. The problem: Minimum bid requirements are US$2 per acre (0.4 hectares), a level that has not been lifted in decades, making it easy for speculators with no intention to drill to secure land at deflated values in times of low demand, then resell at a profit.
Thang purchased about a quarter of all the federal land sold between August last year and January, government data showed.
Critics of the low bid requirements say that raising them would deter speculators and raise more revenue for public coffers.
“They are getting like a bargain-basement IPO [initial public offering] on our natural resources,” said US Representative Katie Porter, who chairs the US House of Representatives Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Porter has submitted a bill to raise minimum bids to US$5 per acre.
The Trump administration sought to maximize domestic oil-and-gas production by offering as much federal land as possible — more than 10 million hectares over four years, but due to low demand for leases, driven by low oil prices, only about one-quarter sold, driving lease prices to rock bottom.
The oil-and-gas industry rejects the argument that the leasing program’s low-minimum bids lure speculators and believes that raising minimum bids would deter investment from oil firms. One trade group said that the administration of US President Joe Biden should simply revoke Thang’s leases because she is not a US citizen.
“It’s a simple fix to a rather bizarre case that says nothing about the broader leasing program,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.
Thang, a permanent US resident, used a US-registered company to buy her leases, which is permitted under a federal leasing program.
Biden last month suspended new leasing auctions pending a comprehensive review of the US federal drilling program.
Thang immigrated to the US 20 years ago. She has since become a minor celebrity in the Burmese immigrant community, describing herself on Facebook as a devout Christian, a successful businesswoman and a philanthropist. Her followers include many who fled military abuses against ethnic minority groups in Myanmar. The US has taken in about 175,000 Burmese refugees since 2007, government data show.
In June last year, Cin was among Thang’s first buyers. She contacted Thang, who convinced her to invest US$510,000 — her life savings — in parcels in New Mexico, she said.
“She also told me to quit my job, my sushi business, and come live in New Mexico because I will be making between at least 3,000 to 4,000 barrels per day,” Cin said.
She said Thang told her that she would “become rich like her, travel around the world, do missions together.”
Cin grew suspicious after visiting her plot in September last year, guided by a relative of Thang, who could not answer most of her questions.
She later found out that Thang had acquired the land for just US$200,000.
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