Rebranding long overdue for Texas Railroad Commission

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January 28, 2013

By Maresa Strano

Texas

AUSTIN, Texas: Eight years have passed since the Texas Railroad Commission ceded what remained of its railroad responsibilities to the federal government, and the relatively fresh-faced members currently in charge of the state agency believe the time is ripe for an overhaul. Beginning with the commission's name-which will likely be changed to some variation on the Texas Energy Resources Commission-obsolescence has crept into several facets of the 122-year-old agency over the last decade.[1][2]

The commission is composed of three popularly elected commissioners who serve staggered six-year terms. The commission's primary duties are to regulate and oversee the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety, safety in the liquefied petroleum gas industry, and surface coal and uranium mining.[3] Its role and reach have expanded with the advent of fracking, the rise in gas prices and overall oil production- particularly in the last three years. Despite this expansion, the commission's budget has decreased from $74.7 to $71.1 this past fiscal year, an amount which, according to commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, is insufficient to fulfill the agency's growing inspection and enforcement responsibilities. Indeed, the commission recently reported that during the first quarter of the 2013 fiscal year, its inspectors found "about 13,500 alleged violations, including 163 major ones, but assessed total penalties of just $177,475."[2] Smitherman wants to create an enforcement division to close this gap. “By making it a stand-alone division, we communicate that it’s important,” he said in the context of a broad discourse about the commission's improvement involving the State Legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates state agencies on transparency and efficiency, as well as state environmental entities.[4] The commission needs additional funding to get the division off the ground, and has also asked legislators for a $17 million budget supplement to update the "awful"[2]official state website (dead link) and boost server capacity so that users can access important application databases, for example, for more than a few hours each day, and to expedite the processing of drilling paperwork.[5][6]

The Sunset Advisory Commission's review of the railroad commission, which dragged out for two years, resulted in a list of proposed changes including a number addressing conflicts of interest arising from the acceptance of campaign contributions from representatives of industries that fall under the commission's regulatory authority. For instance, the Sunset Advisory Commission recommends forbidding commissioners from "knowingly accepting" campaign contributions from groups contesting cases before the commission, and from retaining his or her seat while running for a different office.

As part of the overhaul, the railroad commission has initiated new rules aimed at protecting gas and oil wells amid the fracking process known as "well integrity," and a rule to simplify the recycling of water from oil and gas wells to alleviate issues caused by Texas' frequent droughts.[7]

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