Report says Texas Railroad Commission should be abolished

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on December 2, 2010 at 10:51 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 2 at 11:27 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

Since 2007, News 8 has taken a critical look at the Texas Railroad Commission's regulation of — and relationship with — the oil and gas industry.

Now, a government panel is recommending the Railroad Commission and its three elected commissioners be abolished and replaced by a new state agency better focused on efficiency and safety.

The Texas Railroad Commission is the state's oldest regulatory body. It once oversaw the railroad industry in Texas. Today its only job is to regulate the oil and gas industry.

A four-year News 8 investigation into natural gas-related accidents, explosions, injuries and deaths has — at every turn — come to rest at the steps of the Texas Railroad Commission.

While the three elected Railroad Commissioners have been responsive and have beefed up safety rules, according to the Sunset Advisory Commission staff, any reforms have not gone far enough.

Every 12 years, the Sunset Advisory Commission of Texas reviews a state agency's performance.

According to State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth), this report gives the Texas Railroad Commission a failing grade.

"We need to change the way the Commissioners are formed," Burnam said. "We need to change the fact that this is probably the most corrupt regulatory agency in the state of Texas, and that's hinted at very clearly in this report."

In fact, the Sunset Advisory Commission report goes beyond hints. It very clearly identifies "several critical concerns with the agency's oversight, funding, and enforcement processes."

Chief among those concerns is an assertion that the three elected commissioners "pose a conflict for the agency's regulatory role" because the commissioners "rely on campaign contributions from the regulated industry," the only major state agency allowed to operate in this manner.

"The industry does control who the Railroad Commissioners are, and therefore they control that agency top to bottom — always have," Burnam said.

Public Citizen, a government watchdog agency in Austin, found in a recent survey that in the 2009-2010 election cycle, Railroad Commissioners got 76 percent of their contributions from the industry they regulate.

"When people aren't participating — only industry is participating — that's not democracy, that's a plutocracy and we need to move away from that," said Andrew Wilson, a research associate for Public Citizen.

The Sunset Commission report is also critical of the Railroad Commission for "pursuing enforcement action in a very small percentage of the thousands of violations its inspectors identify each year."

"In 2009, of the more than 80,000 oil and gas production related violations, only 4 percent were turned over for prosecution," according to the report.

The report also cites "inadequate tracking of enforcement data" and found the "three-member elected commission to be costly to the state."

Ultimately, "staff found no ongoing need for a three-member elected structure" and recommends it be abolished and renamed the "Texas Oil and Gas Commission," made up of five appointed board members.

Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, the agency's longest-serving member, downplays the report's significance. "There's nothing in there that's an indictment of the Commission, he said.

Repeated attempts by News 8 to reach representatives at the Texas Oil and Gas Association for comment were unsuccessful. The oil and gas industry is expected to fight these proposals, and perhaps favor only a change in the Railroad Commission's name.

Public hearings on these recommendations begin in two weeks, and the full Sunset Advisory Commission — made up of state lawmakers and two public members — will vote on the recommendations next January.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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