Ethics & Conflicts of Interest

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.

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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.
07.18.2023 Media Coverage

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Committee on Environmental Regulation Public Hearing CBS 7 Midland

02.13.2021 Reports

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