Texas Railroad Commission Still Needs to Work on Holding Oil and Gas Producers Accountable

Once again, the Railroad Commission of Texas' raison d'être has been evaluated by a commission comprising state legislators and two regular citizens. Once again, it was given a reprieve from being abolished, given the gang-busting pace of oil and gas development over the last several years. But not without a few strongly worded suggestions.

What business does an agency with the word "railroad" in its name have regulating oil and gas, you ask? Good point, because the Railroad Commission has not a damned thing to do with railroads; hasn't for years, though it still gets railroad noise complaints. An accurate name would be a start, the Sunset Advisory Commission recommended in its most recent evaluation of the RRC. It figures it would be helpful if the name reflected the actual mission of what is arguably one of the most powerful agencies in the country, charged with regulating oil and gas in the most prolific oil- and gas-producing state.

Hell, in 2008, even a candidate for the commission thought promoting "Railroad Safety" was part of the gig (He lost, by the way).

Next, it would help if the three elected commissioners would at least pretend like they aren't totally in the industry bag. For starters, the Sunset Advisory Commission (of which our own state Representative Rafael Anchia is a member) recommends that RRC members stop spending their entire six-year terms in full-blown campaign mode, wherein literally "tens of thousands of dollars" are donated every month by the very oil and gas producers commissioners are supposed to regulate. How about a year-and-a-half of campaigning instead? Of course, the commissioners don't think it's such a hot idea.

Let's take it a step further anyway. Since the Railroad Commission has become a "springboard" (Sunset's word, not mine) to higher office, let's require the commissioner's immediate resignation when they announce their candidacy for another office. That way, it doesn't look like they're massaging big oil and gas producers for contributions further on down the campaign trail. This, too, the commissioners officially disagree with.

But they couldn't possibly think it's inadvisable to prohibit commissioners from accepting donations from an oil and gas producer involved in a contested case before the commission, right? Wrong. For the record, they think such a ban is a terrible idea.

Enough about the commissioners. What about the commission's regulatory machinery? According to the Sunset Advisory report, actual progress is being made. Until recently, the commission's catalog of oil and gas infractions didn't account for the severity of offenses. That makes it damn near impossible to figure out who is a repeat offender. That's beginning to change, but it'll require action from the state Legislature, which last year failed to pass a bill codifying penalty guidelines. This year, only 2 percent of the 55,000 documented violations were sent up for enforcement action.

Interstate pipeline safety represents a gaping hole in our regulatory oversight. The Railroad Commission doesn't have statutory oversight to enforce interstate pipeline damage prevention rules. Only the feds do and, according to the Sunset report, they don't. It might be a good idea, considering the fact that TransCanada is currently constructing a 36-inch pipeline through Texas, designed to carry oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries. The catastrophic rupturing of an Enbridge pipeline carrying oil sands on a tributary of Michigan's Kalamazoo River resulted in the spillage of more than a million gallons of the stuff, which suggests some sort of oversight couldn't hurt. You'll be happy to hear that the Railroad Commission agrees.

So, a few constructive criticisms to work with. You can read the full report here, and the Railroad Commission's official responses here.

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Brantley Hargrove