Fixing the Railroad Commission

Several changes at the Railroad Commission could make this a more effective state agency, better at overseeing the oil and gas industry.

Step one is to #ChangetheName of the agency.

The Railroad Commission has changed in function, composition, and even jurisdiction over the years, but not in name. Other states call their oil and gas agencies things like the “New Mexico Oil Conservation Division,” but the name of the Texas agency has not changed.

It’s time to #ChangeTheName of the commission so that it better reflects what the agency actually does. This will help Texans understand what they’re voting for in a railroad commissioner and who to contact when they have concerns.

Tell your lawmaker to rename the Railroad Commission.

As former Commissioner Ryan Sitton once said, changing the commission’s name is “about transparency, good government, and keeping people informed about what we’re doing.”

Ethics & Conflicts of Interest

Beyond the name change, there are several areas where the Railroad Commission needs reform. At Commission Shift, we are currently focused on the following challenges:

A principal reason environmental, oil and gas policy reforms are difficult in Texas is because railroad commissioners continue to maintain close financial ties to the companies they oversee. The commissioners take more than two-thirds of their campaign contributions from the same companies they oversee, with no monetary limits and no calendar limits on when the companies can donate. These financial conflicts of interest may introduce bias toward the oil and gas industry in the commissioners’ decisions and prevent landowners and environmental interests from achieving science and data-driven reforms. Commission Shift has exposed this issue through our research, and has proposed several solutions to help reduce financial conflicts of interest at the Railroad Commission.

Read Our Captive Agency Reports

Campaign Finance

Railroad commissioners may solicit and accept large campaign contributions from the very industry that they are supposed to oversee, raising concerns about the integrity of the commission’s decisions. Commission Shift and Texans for Public Justice published a series of research reports in 2021, finding that the commissioners raised more than two-thirds of their campaign contributions from the same companies they oversee in their official role.While railroad commissioners are subject to the rules of the Texas Ethics Commission, the rules do not currently forbid this practice – even for companies with cases pending before the Railroad Commission.

Over the years, commissioners have received tens of millions of dollars from oil and gas interests with cases pending before their agency, including from companies accused of triggering earthquakes and taking advantage of gas utility customers. Notably, the commission ultimately ruled in favor of these companies, funneling Texans’ money into the pockets of utilities and contradicting the findings of the state’s leading seismologists. Recognizing the issues present in allowing a sitting commissioner to regulate companies with which they are personally associated, states like Oklahoma have explicit laws that forbid members of the commission from owning interest or associating themselves with firms under the agency’s jurisdiction.

In 2013, the Sunset Advisory Commission recommended that the Railroad Commission adopt a recusal policy, limit railroad commission candidate fundraising to an 18-month period during each commissioner’s six-year term, and prohibit parties with upcoming contested case hearings from making financial contributions to commissioners’ campaigns. Lawmakers failed to pass any of these recommendations, instead simply requesting that the commission adopt a recusal policy on its own. While the commission ultimately adopted a generic recusal policy, the policy has never been followed by the commissioners or enforced by the Texas Attorney General’s office. There is no requirement that commissioners recuse themselves from matters affecting company executives that contributed to their campaigns.

Commission Shift is proposing three priority solutions for reducing conflicts of interest at the Railroad Commission:

  • Define “personal or private” interest in Texas statutes, to clarify that elected must recuse themselves from decisions that involve a company listed on the Personal Financial Statement they submit to the Texas Ethics Commission.
  • Limit campaign fundraising periods to an 18-month period surrounding the election, rather than allowing donations throughout the commissioners’ six-year terms.
  • Restrict who can donate, and limit campaign contributions to $5,000, just like statewide judicial races.

Public Participation

As oil and gas development expands across the state, Texas residents increasingly wonder what they can do to protect themselves from problems like pollution. Drilling is a dangerous business; when a company breaks the rules in a community, it’s important to know who can hold them accountable. Unfortunately, filing complaints with Texas’ regulatory agencies can be tough, especially for those that find themselves having to deal with the Railroad Commission. The commission’s website reflects the agency’s long-outdated information system. Visitors often describe trouble locating basic information such as how to contest permits or what steps they should take when impacted by chemicals and fumes from drilling.

Inclusive decision making is one of Commission Shift’s core values. We believe that oil and gas workers, farmers and ranchers, neighbors of oil and gas development, students of Texas’ public schools, energy consumers, and the many others that are affected by the oil and gas industry in Texas deserve stability, safety, clean air, and clean water.

Our state can achieve better results in rulemakings, strategic plans, permit proceedings, and more when the public is meaningfully engaged, authentically listened to, and when their needs are incorporated into decisions.

Open Meetings

The Railroad Commission hosts a monthly or biweekly Open Meeting where they approve recommended orders presented by the commission’s hearings examiners, administrative law judges, counsel, and staff. The public can sign up to comment on an agenda item or during the public input session. If you sign up for an agenda item, the commissioners may choose not to call on you. If you wish to speak on a matter that is not on the agenda, you may also sign up for public input. Typically, commenters are allowed five minutes for public input.

Instructions on how to sign up for public input or to give comment on an agenda item are available on the Railroad Commission Open Meeting agendas, which can be found on the commission’s website. The commission posts meeting agendas one week prior to each meeting. You must sign up by noon the day before the meeting to give comment on an agenda item or public input on an item that is not on the agenda.

Language Justice

There is a dangerous lack of public input at the Railroad Commission. As opportunities arise for public comment on commission reports and rulemakings, Commission Shift is mobilizing Texans – especially those most affected by oil and gas pollution.

One major gap in the Railroad Commission’s public participation processes is the absence of language accommodation. Even though many Texans prefer Spanish or Vietnamese, the Railroad Commission does not provide information on its website in any languages other than English, nor does it offer language accessibility services in its proceedings.

Commission Shift previews and summarizes Railroad Commission public meetings to make sure more Texans know what this critically important state agency is doing. As we build out our language justice program, we will be able to offer more materials in other languages.

We see a need for sustained outreach by the Railroad Commission in communities that need language accommodation, so that we can improve awareness and public participation among communities affected by oil and gas development. Commission Shift recently provided on an API Standard (RP 1185) on Public Engagement, advocating for better language accommodation by pipeline companies. Once approved, the standard could be incorporated into federal or state rulemakings.

Monitoring & Enforcement Planning

Monitoring oil and gas facilities for compliance with state laws is a critical piece of the commission’s job. Texas is a big place, and without staff members inspecting oil and gas facilities while levying adequate penalties in cases of non-compliance, there’s little incentive for oil and gas well operators to follow the rules. This could be why, for five years, 114 well operators repeatedly ranked among the top 100 pollution-rule violators in the state, accounting for 3% of the wells in Texas but 22% of the pollution-rule violations.

Each year, we mobilize affected community members to comment on the Railroad Commission’s Draft Monitoring and Enforcement Plan.

Learn more about the 2024 Oil and Gas Monitoring and Enforcement Plan

For the 2022 plan, for example, we submitted nine pages of public comments. The Railroad Commission says it received 17 comments on the plan but did not publish them anywhere. We requested all public comments through an open records request and have posted them here.

No information about language accommodation was provided on the Railroad Commission website regarding the draft plan or the comment period. The final draft of the plan noted that the Railroad Commission received 17 comments through the Commission Conference email address that “included an objection to the plan only being available in English.”

Significantly, the Railroad Commission incorrectly reported the number of major violations in the draft plan.

For FY 2020, the Railroad Commission reported only 12 major violations. In Appendix B, however, the commission provides a definition of major violations that lists 14 specific rules. When we compare this list of rules to the number of violations by rule listed in Table 3, Commission Shift found that over 14,000 violations in 2020 were major. See details here.

It is similarly likely that the Railroad Commission has reported incorrect data for some rule violations in more recent years, too.

Commission Shift recommended that the Railroad Commission double-check the total number of violations reported for each rule. The Commission did not make any changes following our recommendation, nor did they respond with an explanation.

We will continue to advocate for the Railroad Commission to gather input from stakeholders when developing each annual plan, including the following information:

  • Data regarding the number, type, and severity of:
    • Violations the commission found to have occurred
    • Violations the commission referred for enforcement to the section of the commission responsible for enforcement; and
    • Violations for which the commission imposed a penalty or took other enforcement action.
  • The number of major violations for which the commission imposed a penalty or took other enforcement action; and
  • The number of repeat major violations, categorized by individual oil or gas lease, if applicable.

In April, the Railroad Commission’s Oil and Gas Division released their Monitoring and Enforcement Strategic Plan for fiscal year 2024 for public comments. For more details about the 2024 plan and our community input, read more on our blog.

Inequities in Monitoring & Enforcement

Monitoring and enforcement are also equity issues. When historic and current discriminatory practices impact the ways different areas receive different levels of enforcement, it is often Texans of color and low-income Texans that suffer the most.

We co-authored a peer-reviewed article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that looked at 2014-2017 data for 13 U.S. metro areas including Dallas and found higher rates of natural gas pipeline leaks per mile in lower income communities or those with larger populations of people of color.

The number of leaks we observed in natural gas distribution systems are often disparate depending on race and income, especially in Dallas. The Railroad Commission has an important role to play in overseeing how thorough, consistent, and equitable gas utility operators’ safety plans are.

Although most natural gas pipeline leaks are non-hazardous, some leaks can result in disastrous consequences. A February 2018 leak in Dallas caused a home explosion that killed a 12-year-old girl in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

Among the findings in the peer-reviewed article:

  • Leak density increased with increasing percent of people of color in eight of the nine metro areas considered for the analysis.
  • In seven metro areas, leak density was estimated to increase with greater linguistic isolation.
  • In seven metro areas, census tracts with lower median incomes were more likely to exhibit higher leak density.
  • To our knowledge, no one has done an equity and justice-driven national analysis mapping natural gas leaks. This article provides a roadmap for utilities to gauge the equity and justice of their own operations. We urge utilities to use their most recent data to perform an equity analysis and then take steps to protect people in disproportionately affected areas.

There are a variety of possible reasons why gas leaks go unrepaired and are unequally distributed across income, language, or ethnicity. These could include:

Leaks behind the meter

Typically residents have to call a plumber to fix leaks behind the gas meter, and utilities don’t handle those. Renters can have even more trouble getting a property owner’s attention on these kinds of leaks.

Inequitable response to leaks

When people report smelling gas, the response time can vary depending on someone’s neighborhood, race or income level. It can be more expensive and challenging to repair or mitigate gas leaks in denser urban areas.

Inequitable investments

Infrastructure investments often leave out low income communities or communities of color when cities focus on business districts and wealthier developments.

Lack of inspectors

There are nowhere near enough inspectors to monitor the safety of natural gas distribution systems. The Railroad Commission has only 65 inspectors who each cover an average of 7,300 miles of pipeline all over the state.

See more program areas

Cleaning up Oil & Gas

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