Public Comment of Virginia Palacios Before the Railroad Commission of TexasTestimonies

Good morning, my name is Virginia Palacios, Executive Director of Commission Shift. I came from Laredo, Texas to be here today. Commission Shift is a nonpartisan nonprofit that is building public support to hold the Railroad Commission of Texas accountable to its mission in a shifting energy landscape.

A couple of weeks ago, our Deputy Director, Dr. Maria Reyes spoke on a panel at the Pipeline Safety Trust Conference in New Orleans. Pipeline Safety Trust is a nonprofit organization that formed after a natural gas pipeline explosion killed three young boys in Bellingham, Washington. They host a conference every year that includes members of the public, state and federal pipeline safety officials, and representatives from pipeline companies. It’s a unique space to be a part of, where each group feels comfortable being uncomfortable and seeking constructive solutions out of competing priorities.

I want to highlight a few takeaways from the panel Dr. Reyes was on. First, we heard from Debrae Burns, a survivor of the 2020 Denbury Gulf Coast Pipeline carbon dioxide pipeline explosion in Mississippi. Mr. Burns shared his experience from that event. He was driving home from a fishing trip with his brother when they drove through a plume of carbon dioxide, and their engine shutoff. His brother was convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Mr. Burns eventually made it to a hospital and he later told me he spent a week on a ventilator. He now suffers short term memory loss. He has been unemployed since the event, and his daughters had to move out because he can no longer support them. He said he can no longer cook food on the stove at home because he forgets that it is on, and has almost burned the house down on several occasions.

In reports to PHMSA, Denbury reported no injuries, even though dozens of people affected by the plume were taken to the hospital and many spent the night at the hospital. I’m telling you this because the data you receive from operators about pipeline safety may not always tell the full story of risks and consequences to our communities. Denbury is headquartered in Plano, Texas. As the commission continues to seek primacy for Class VI carbon dioxide injection, more of our communities will be exposed to hazards of carbon dioxide infrastructure, and we are counting on you to keep us safe.

My colleague, Dr. Reyes, was on the panel with Mr. Burns and she discussed our contributions to the American Petroleum Institutes’ Pipeline Public Engagement Recommended Practice – RP 1185. The Recommended Practice provides guidance to hazardous liquids and gas transmission and gathering pipeline operators, interested parties in the public, governments, and rights holders for effective stakeholder engagement, moving beyond public awareness which is fundamentally a one-way communication activity. The ballot on RP 1185 is open for comment now at Guests can download the standard and submit comments using ballot ID 5959 and leaving the login ID blank. The comment period ends January 30, 2023.

I am requesting that you ask the Oversight and Safety Division to review the recommended practice, and consider ways that the Railroad Commission can better integrate two-way public engagement into its permitting, monitoring, and enforcement strategies, including the Draft Monitoring and Enforcement Plan that the commission opens for comment each spring. This is important, now more than ever, because Texas’ energy landscape is changing rapidly -especially with expected growth in carbon dioxide and hydrogen transportation across the state.

Last, but not least, we heard from Linda Daugherty, Deputy Associate Administrator for Field Operations in the Office of Pipeline Safety at PHMSA. Linda discussed the department’s actions following the publication of two studies, one by PHMSA and one that I co-authored with a research team at Colorado State University, which found a higher incidence of natural gas pipeline leaks in low income communities and in communities of color. Linda’s team is now working on a tool that utilities and state regulators can use to assess disparities in pipeline leaks considering a social vulnerability index. It is essential that pipelines are repaired and replaced based on risk, and that some communities are not unfairly left behind when it comes to pipeline safety. I want to encourage you to follow these developments at PHMSA and work to provide equal safety to all communities in Texas.

Complete testimony with citations.

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