Class Visit: Climate Impacts and Oil and Gas in TexasThe Workover Blog

SJ Stout
Commission Shift Communications Manager

I had the privilege of getting to visit a freshman writing class at Rice University to talk about Commission Shift’s mission and the work of a communications manager. These visits are valuable to share our work with young voters, and also to encourage them to learn about the aspects of our work that interest them.

I’ve compiled and answered some of the great questions from this class. Please take a look and use our Commission Shift contact form with your own questions about this work.

How has the identity of Texas – historically known [for] being big on the oil industry, with abundant profit coming from it – impacted [Commission Shift’s] work, and how do they work around it?

It’s true, the history of Texas is closely linked to oil and gas development. The industry has made a huge profit in the state over decades – enough to flush our legislature and political institutions with campaign donations and integrate themselves in our communities in order to sway public opinion. Reviewing the facts, however, reveals a more complete picture, where oil and gas money hasn’t extended to help our communities. For instance, we see oil and gas operators not required to pay to decommission old and inactive wells. Instead, the financial and health costs of leaking wells, illegal flaring, and other mismanaged aspects of oil and gas development are passed from the polluters onto the public to bear.

People living near these high consequence sites experience firsthand the negligence of the Railroad Commission. Connecting with them and helping share their stories is one way we can challenge dominant narratives about oil and gas in our state.

What tactics does Commission Shift use to bring about changes in oil and gas policy?

Commission Shift builds public support to hold the Railroad Commission accountable to the people of Texas, not just the industry. This can look like learning from communities on the ground impacted by oil and gas development, connecting their stories to decision makers and media, and using their experiences and our research in order to inform policy recommendations on a range of Railroad Commission oversight programs. We also build public support more broadly through Get Out the Vote initiatives and basic education campaigns. All of these activities require strong written and visual communication in order to connect to these different audiences, share information, and inspire change.

Does the reform work also emphasize strategies on adopting alternative sustainable energies (solar, nuclear, etc.)?

While we applaud new advances in conservation and renewable power, we understand the focus of our work to be on holding the state oil and gas agency accountable to strengthen their rules for oil and gas operations and improve their processes in order to be more transparent, accessible, and responsive to the public. The energy transition won’t happen overnight, so along the way we need responsible oversight.

In terms of climate justice, would any limitations on the energy industry curtail job opportunities?

While the energy industry must change to meet the needs of people and the climate, change will happen unevenly across sectors. The amount of jobs in certain sectors will grow, for instance, if we push for more well decommissioning and plugging, as well as safety inspectors for pipelines, wells, and oil and gas waste pits. Currently there are only enough inspectors at the RRC to visit a site roughly once every 5 years.

How did you gain an interest in regulations about climate? Or, what made you start your path in this work?

I was looking for opportunities where I could contribute to work that is rooted in community and the environment. Getting plugged into your local and influential groups is key to understanding what’s out there. While working with a different environmental group, I saw Commission Shift’s launch with the release of their Captive Agency and Orphaned Wells reports. Reading them, I was impressed with the depth of the research and clear-eyed, concrete solutions to big environmental and policy problems in Texas. I knew I could support their goals and what they stood for. When I saw a job post looking for a communications associate, I jumped, and the rest was history.

How does writing poetry and your time at Rice set you up for your current job?

My background in poetry has given me lessons in brevity, precision, and composition – the same skills that are useful for facilitating a meeting or writing an effective social media post, for instance. Any background, however, has lessons that can be applied to community and advocacy work. There is no single path that will prepare you, and anything you can apply from your background and experiences will serve you well.

What is the hardest and most rewarding part of working at a nonprofit?

Oftentimes, especially in a relatively new nonprofit (Commission Shift is 3 years old), we are still figuring out how to build the internal infrastructure to work together and advance the mission. This process is as important as our external facing work. While not having a clear road map can be tough, it’s also empowering to be able to collaborate and build the space that nurtures and supports our team.

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