DALLAS — A Dallas lawmaker has filed 11 bills seeking to hold natural gas companies like Atmos Energy more accountable to the public and to force the Texas Railroad Commission to do a better job of overseeing the industry it regulates.
The bills, filed Wednesday by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would, among other things, increase fines; create searchable databases to track complaints, violations and leaks; demand ramped-up replacement of aging cast iron and bare steel pipe; and force natural gas companies to recompute bills for customers when leaks occur.
Anchia’s bills come almost one year after a natural gas explosion claimed the life of 12-year-old Linda “Michellita” Rogers.
“In Texas, in 2018, these kinds of things shouldn't be happening,” Anchia told News 8 last month. Anchia represents the district where Michelita died.
According to federal regulators, Atmos Energy was aware of various leaks in Rogers’ neighborhood during the seven weeks prior to the fatal explosion.
Anchia said he believes the tragedy could have been prevented if customers had been notified. Anchia wants to require that natural gas companies notify in writing those customers within a quarter mile of a leak.
Michellita died Feb. 23 in the third of three house explosions in her neighborhood. The explosions triggered an evacuation of more than 1,000 homes. Atmos replaced miles of aging steel pipe, blaming unforeseen shifting soil conditions for putting pressure on their system that created uncontrollable leaks.
There is currently no timeline when operators have to notify the commission of a natural gas incident, such as an explosion.
News 8 reported last that it wasn’t until after the second house exploded in Michellita’s Northwest Dallas neighborhood that Atmos notified state regulators. Michellita’s home blew up 12 hours later.
One of Anchia’s bills would force operators to notify regulators within one hour about a leakage incident that resulted in death, someone being hospitalized, or property damage of more than $50,000.
Another of Anchia’s bills would dramatically accelerate the replacement of aging cast iron, wrought iron and bare steel pipes. He wants it done by Dec. 31, 2020.
Atmos currently has hundreds of miles of cast iron pipe in Dallas County. The company said it replaced 40 miles of cast iron and 47 miles of steel pipe in Dallas last year.
News 8 has previously reported that federal regulators have warned of cast iron’s dangers for decades. Atmos has said it would take until 2023 to remove and replace all cast iron in Dallas County.
Anchia also wants to significantly increase fines for violations. The current daily fine is $10,000, and was set in 1983.
Anchia’s bill would raise daily fines to $25,000 per day to keep up with inflation.
News 8 has previously reported that Atmos paid $194,5000 in penalties over the past five years.
Other state regulatory agencies including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, have raised maximum fines to $25,000.
As it currently stands, the commission lacks a process for tracking enforcement data. The Sunset commission unanimously recommended in 2011 and 2017 that the Railroad Commission track complaint and enforcement information on its site.
Anchia would require operators to provide information to the Railroad Commission after a natural gas accident similar to those explosions in Northwest Dallas. There is currently no single state or federal agency that tracks all natural gas accidents. For example, if the leak appears to have been caused by a malfunctioning appliance inside the home, it may not be reported to state regulators.
Another bill filed by Anchia would require the Railroad Commission to create a searchable database available on its web site for natural gas pipeline-related inspections, violations and complaints.
He also has filed legislation that would require the Commission to create another database to allow the public to see what’s leaking in their area. The law currently requires Atmos and other gas companies to report leaks after they’ve been repaired every six months.
A recent WFAA investigation found Atmos may often be slow to fix leaks – including some of the most serious – and that the company has lost or can't account for tens of millions of dollars of natural gas flowing through its system.
WFAA discovered that since 2010, according to its own reports, Atmos lost or couldn’t account for an estimated $98.6 million worth of natural gas in its pipelines in Dallas County alone.
State law allows the company to “recover” the cost for much of the lost or unaccounted for gas — specifically, the cost of gas lost or unaccounted for up to a 5 percent leak rate.
“Since we pay for both the leakage and we also pay for the repairs, let’s go ahead and accelerate the repairs,” Anchia told WFAA last month.
Atmos and its natural gas pipeline replacement program have come under intense scrutiny following the explosion that killed Michellita. When Atmos conducted leak tests soon after the fatal explosion, the company acknowledged that it found 28 leaks near her home.
The multiple Northwest Dallas explosions remain under investigation by the Railroad Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board.
A preliminary report released by the NTSB already revealed that Atmos was aware of leaks in the neighborhood for nearly two months before the string of explosions. The NTSB has said it found cracks all the way around a two-inch gas line behind the Rogers' house on Espanola Drive. The line was so leaky that it couldn't hold pressure when it was capped off.
The final NTSB report has yet to be released.
As it stands now, the three commissioners who serve on the Texas Railroad Commission may receive campaign contributions at any time from the public, including the very companies it regulates.
The 2013 and 2017 Sunset commissions noted that receiving money from companies a regulatory oversees may create a conflict of interest. State campaign contribution records show that the majority of contributions made to members of the Railroad Commission come from the oil and gas industry.
“It creates at least an appearance of impropriety,” Anchia said.
Anchia said he has filed legislation to prohibit railroad commissioners from taking campaign contributions from oil and gas operators with contested regulatory matters pending before the commission.
“People are dying and we need to have a regulator that the public has confidence in,” he said.
Anchia’s bills also would:
- Change the name of the Texas Railroad Commission to the Texas Energy Resources Commission. Several Sunset Commission reviews have recommended the name change to better reflect the Commission’s mission. The Commission had not had anything to do with regulating railroads since 2005.
- Recompute customer bills when leaks occur. Operators would have to fix the bills within two months after the leak to “to ensure that customers are not charged for gas that was delivered as a result of a leak,” according to Anchia’s office.
- Require the Railroad Commission to keep “full and complete investigative records of all natural gas-related accidents.”