Andrew Dobbs, Legislative Director
The Texas Railroad Commission has nothing to do with trains—it’s the state agency that is supposed to regulate the oil and gas industry in Texas. This makes it one of the most important agencies there is, and right now they are undergoing an important review. Next year our state lawmakers could be voting on major changes to the agency. Because of the out-sized pollution impacts from oil and gas operations throughout Texas, this is a crucial opportunity to protect our environment and public health and safety for all residents.
State officials from the Texas Sunset Commission are currently undertaking this comprehensive review process, and they just released a report on the important changes that are needed at the Railroad Commission. What they found was disturbing. In their own words, the Railroad Commission:
Has a “lack of strategic approach to enforcement and inability to provide basic performance information.”
“Cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of its oil and natural gas enforcement program.”“Struggles to report reliable data.”
“Does not, and seemingly cannot, report the complete number of oil and gas violations cited by Railroad Commission staff last year.”
“Cannot guarantee that major violations (such as ‘a large spill that contaminates freshwater’) are being appropriately addressed.”
“Does not specifically track repeat violations.”
“Failed to deter operators from repeatedly violating regulations that could result in groundwater contamination.”
These aren’t quotes from us here at Texas Campaign for the Environment or from another environmental group—this is a state oversight agency telling us that our way of enforcing oil and gas laws in Texas is broken. Read the whole report here.
At the heart of this problem is the way that the Railroad Commission enforces the law. This agency bends over backwards to avoid issuing penalties. Instead, they will forego any fines or other discipline as long as the lawbreaker complies after they are caught. The report found that current enforcement policy has the “unintended effect that operators will simply wait to be told to comply with regulations.” Bad actors know they can break the law freely until an inspector comes—keep in mind that over 65% of oil and gas leases have gone more than 2 years without an inspection.
And because the agency doesn’t keep track of repeat offenders, those bad operators can start breaking the law again as soon as the inspector leaves. If another inspector shows up months or years later and find the same exact violations, the company still won’t be fined—they can play the same “we will now start obeying the law” game over and over again. As the report says, “the Railroad Commission cannot be certain that operators are not committing repeated violations.”
Finally, as if all of this weren’t bad enough, the one threat the state agency really does have—a “lease severance” which forbids a lawbreaking operator from producing any oil and gas—“may be an empty threat” according to this report. Last year nearly 20% of the operators barred from producing oil and gas were caught doing it anyway, and the only way the state agency ever catches them is if they turn themselves in.
The solution is a simple, commonsense idea that state lawmakers of all political stripes should be able to support. The Texas Railroad Commission needs to get serious about enforcing the law, tracking their performance, and making violation and penalty information available to the public and our elected officials. The report makes an important recommendation: Make the Railroad Commission develop a public, annual strategic plan that tracks and measures the effectiveness of monitoring and enforcement.
Enforcing existing state laws designed to protect our air, water and land shouldn’t be a controversial issue. Better enforcement could improve other areas such as our chronic smog problem in D/FW—much of our regional ozone pollution can be traced to oil and gas emissions. It could even affect the growing number of earthquakes caused by the oil and gas industry, because if state officials want to put rules in place to prevent this damaging seismic activity, they’ll be utterly useless without proper enforcement.
Sadly, oil and gas industry lobbyists have convinced many of our state lawmakers that nothing needs to change at the Railroad Commission. (It should come as no surprise that oil and gas lobbyists are among the most powerful in the state.) But many other elected officials, community leaders and local groups know that the Texas Railroad Commission needs a better strategy for living up to its obligations.
We’re working to organize broad support and convince state officials to do what’s right and take Texas law seriously. Yes, this can be done if enough people get involved now. You can take action today!