Passions were high Tuesday night, at a Town Hall meeting at the Grapevine Convention Center. About 40 community members attended a Town Hall to tell state lawmakers their thoughts on reforming the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC).
Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) is the state agency tasked with regulating the $14 billion oil and gas industry in Texas and also oversee coal mining and development, pipelines, and uranium extraction.
Next year, the state legislature will be reviewing the RRC for a third time since 2010. State agencies in Texas are reviewed by a Sunset Commission every decade or so, but the past two RRC proposals failed to lead to any changes. Many community members feel the agency is long overdue for significant reforms on enforcement, regulation, and of course a new name.
About 30 community members testified Tuesday night. Many speakers cited a list of changes proposed by the advocacy group Public Citizen. Others spoke more from the heart, like one woman who spoke viscerally of air pollution and a flurry of earthquakes experienced in Irving. Others from Denton spoke of their impacts from fracking near neighborhoods, and wanted the RRC to do more work regulating the industry than promoting it.
When it came time for my speaking spot, I reminded the present lawmakers that Texas Campaign for the Environment speaks face-to-face with Texans in every legislative district in the state, and they would be receiving letters about this issue in the coming weeks and months. Already, North Texans have written 4,000 letters to state lawmakers at the request of TCE canvassers, advocating for substantial agency changes.
Referring to the Sunset Commission Staff Report released earlier this year for the State Legislature, I compared the RRC performance on inspection and permitting to a hypothetical law officer. I will recount my statement because I think it resonated many people in the room.
Imagine for a moment that a state trooper does all his or her administrative duties with great diligence, he or she never makes an error on paperwork, but when he or she is on highway patrol, it is a well-known fact that this law officer writes warnings instead of making arrests for drunk driving 84% of the time! Now, just because this cop does excellent paperwork, does this make them a good cop?
Absolutely not! At this point, State Rep. Jim Keffer jumped in, “I’m always one of the 16% who gets the speeding ticket!” Exactly! Honorable Keffer, it isn’t fair to let droves of criminals off with trivial wrist-slaps, certainly if this isn’t their first, second, third or fourth offense.
But that’s exactly what happened with oil and gas inspections last year, 84% of violations did not result in a fine, severance of lease contract, or any punishment. The drilling operators were simply told, “Do you mind fixing this by the time we do our next inspection, two to three years from now?”
Texas Campaign for the Environment is fighting to get common sense reforms passed at the Capitol on the Railroad Commission. Some of these reforms include:
- Better tracking of violations and repeat violations.
- Developing a “strategic plan for the Oil and Gas Division that tracks and measures the effectiveness of monitoring and enforcement.”
- Increasing the bond requirement that funds the cost of plugging and remediation of abandoned wells. Those bonds covered 15.9% of the costs in 2015 – so taxpayers are left paying the bills of industry.
- Giving the agency the authority to enforce damage prevention rules of interstate pipelines.
While all of this sounds like a tiny pill to swallow, remember that this is the third attempt in six years to reform an agency that sits pretty cozy with lawmakers. Sustained pressure from constituents across the state will be needed to enact meaningful changes in the agency.
We strongly encourage you to write your state lawmakers on this topic. Follow this link to read more about our recommendations and who represents you at the State Capitol. Even better, put Monday, August 22nd on your calendar. The Sunset Commission will be holding a Public Hearing for the Railroad Commission in Austin and the state legislators and public members need to hear from concerned Texans!
The final proposal from the Sunset Commission will be submitted to the Texas Legislature on November 10th. From that date on through next year’s session we will be fighting tooth and nail to pass the strongest reforms on the agency that hasn’t been accountable to the citizens of Texas since, well, they regulated railroads.
DFW Program Director