Panel votes to abolish Railroad Commission

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on January 12, 2011 at 9:45 PM

Big changes appear to be on the way for the Texas Railroad Commission.

On Wednesday afternoon, the state's Sunset Advisory Commission voted to make sweeping changes to the agency responsible for regulating oil and gas production in Texas.

The decision follows a four-year News 8 investigation of the RRC.

This is an overhaul that many said could never happen — that the oil and gas industry in Texas was too powerful to alter what is considered to be an industry-friendly regulatory body.

But rising frustrations over safety and lax enforcement led to Wednesday's monumental vote.

News 8 investigated the Commission's inaction on gas line couplings after a number of accidents. Backers say the new proposal would lead to more responsive regulation of the oil and gas industry.

The Sunset Advisory Commission proposes to abolish the 116-year old Railroad Commission, which has three members.

It would be replaced with a new oil and gas commissioner. That person would serve a four-year term, with the title of Texas Oil and Gas Commissioner.

The concern is that arrangement puts a lot of power into the hands of a single elected official — someone who might be influenced by campaign contributions.

"That causes me concern that we're going to have one person making the decisions with essentially no recourse," said Sunset Commission member Lamont Jefferson.

The commission disagreed, supporting the new proposal by an 8-4 vote.

Michael Williams, who chairs the Railroad Commission, takes credit for the idea. "It will be faster. You will have focus and accountability in the hands of one person," he said. "And when the election comes and the voters don't like it, they can send that person home."

The proposal to abolish the Railroad Commission will now go to the Texas Legislature for a vote.

The governor would appoint an interim commissioner to serve until 2014. Then the position would go up for election in a statewide vote.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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