The old rules said liners for waste pits must “reasonably” prevent pollution but didn’t include specific standards. The draft rules say pits must be lined with a plastic strong enough to resist damage from crude oil, salts, acids and alkaline solutions. Critics of the commission said the new liner standards aren’t much stronger than the internal guidance used by the agency.
Critics also point out that the draft rules don’t spell out the penalties when pits leak or operators violate the rules of their permit. Ramon, the commission spokesperson, said that more details on fines would be available in the formal rule proposal and would likely be similar to existing regulations.
Fines can be determined on a case-by-case basis and could be reduced if a company demonstrates “good faith;” critics say that would give companies more wiggle room to contest fines.
Industry drafts the rules
The draft rules fulfill a goal and campaign promise for Wright, a Republican from South Texas who was elected to the Railroad Commission in 2020. Wright first tried to influence the agency’s regulations years ago, when he was part of the oilfield waste services industry.
Wright was the CEO and president of a Corpus Christi company called Environmental Evolutions, which hauls hazardous waste, and has investments in other hazardous waste companies, according to state filings. Along with some of his customers, Wright wanted to help guide the commission’s staff on how to more consistently apply the regulations affecting them, he said.
At the time, one commissioner agreed to give the group access to commission staff members, according to an interview Wright did on a podcast, but none of the staff actually wanted to work with them on the rules at that time. A 2019 bill to formalize a commission-appointed oil and gas advisory group failed to pass.
So Wright decided to run for a seat on the Railroad Commission.
Wright received campaign donations from the oilfield waste industry, according to campaign finance reports. NGL Water Solutions Permian LLC, the oilfield waste division for Tulsa-based NGL Energy Partners, is one of Wright’s top donors and has given him $226,000 since 2019; a company executive gave an additional $2,500. The company has also donated to the campaigns of the other two commissioners, Christi Craddick and Wayne Christian.
In an interview, Wright said that campaign fundraising was a “necessary evil” to be in politics, but that campaign donations don’t impact his decisions on the Railroad Commission and that he makes that clear to donors.
After he defeated the better-funded incumbent Ryan Sitton in an upset, Wright’s staff turned to the waste rules, internal documents show. An investigative watchdog group called Documented obtained copies of the documents through public records requests and shared them with the Tribune.
Wright’s former director of public affairs, Kate Zaykowski, helped facilitate the formation of a regulatory task force that included at least seven people from oil and gas and oilfield waste companies, including Pioneer Natural Resources and Waste Management, Inc.
Beginning in early 2021, the task force went page-by-page through a years-old attempt to revise the rules, using it as a framework to define more clearly how permits can and can’t be approved, said Kevin Ware, an environmental engineering consultant who chaired the task force. The task force then gave its proposal to the commission.