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A state agency that treats regulated companies as clients

February 19, 2016

Dallas Morning News Op-Ed
By Corey Troiani

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Every day, Bob and Lisa Parr wake up to a life affected by pollution from the oil and gas industry. When new gas drilling and fracking operations began near their home in Wise County, the gas company released so much toxic pollution that living and breathing on their own property was literally making the Parr family sick. They had to take the drilling company to court in a years-long lawsuit before a jury finally ruled that they were owed $3 million in damages.

Unfortunately, the state agency that is supposed to protect their safety and property rights by enforcing standards for the oil and gas industry — anachronistically called the Railroad Commission of Texas — bends over backwards to protect drilling companies instead.

Ryan Sitton is somehow both the CEO of an energy company and a Railroad Commissioner. That means he’s in charge of regulating his own industry. Predictably, the Railroad Commission always takes the side of industry, insisting that any contamination of our air, water, and land is “below levels of concern” and “protective of human health.” Even after chemical fingerprint testing definitively showed that a private water well in Parker County was contaminated with gas from a fracking operation — so much that it was flammable on tap — the Railroad Commission continued to argue that it was “naturally occurring.”

Now Sitton and the Railroad Commission claim their updated “Rule 13” requires responsible drilling practices that prevent water pollution. But an extensive investigation by WFAA shows what a farce this is. Many drilling companies simply ignore the rule and choose not to install protective well casings, and the industry-lapdog Railroad Commission often looks the other way. An environmental scientist sums it up in the WFAA report: “The price of not following the rules will be paid by Texans whose well water is being destroyed.”

That means Bob and Lisa aren’t alone. And beyond those residents who have seen their drinking water irreversibly polluted, there are millions more here in North Texas who breathe dirty air that exceeds the federal limit for ozone pollution. According to the state environmental agency, oil and gas activities are one of the largest sources of ozone-forming emissions in DFW, adding to our regional smog problems.

Then there is the persistent problem of earthquakes caused by oil and gas operations. In industry-friendly Oklahoma, the state agency has instituted a “stoplight” system of “green, yellow, red” to shut down specific wastewater injection wells that are linked to earthquakes. But the Railroad Commission of Texas won’t even publicly admit that there is such a link at all. The agency even hired its own seismologist just so he could publicly deny that the oil and gas industry was responsible for causing any earthquakes in Texas. Meanwhile scientists at SMU, the University of Texas and the U.S. Geological Survey have documented the link repeatedly. Many North Texans have their homes, businesses and nerves shaken on a regular basis.

Here’s the sad reality: the Railroad Commission of Texas does not work for all residents, but primarily for the oil and gas industry instead. Many of the campaign contributions collected by elected commissioners such as Sitton come directly from the oil and gas industry. The Railroad Commission treats oil and gas companies like “clients” to be served.

In the 2017 Texas Legislature, state lawmakers will be doing a “sunset review” of this agency. Will our State Senators and Representatives get the Railroad Commission in better shape to protect its real clients — all Texas residents — or will it just be business as usual?

That’s a question that all voters should be asking their candidates for the Texas House and Senate during the primary and general elections this year. In addition, one of the three seats for Railroad Commissioner is on the ballot this year, so Texas voters can decide who should be running this agency. Make sure your voice is heard.



Corey Troiani
DFW Program Director
Texas Campaign for the Environment


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