The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), with its misleading name, has long been a source of mystery to everyday Texans. It’s an important state agency with the power to oversee oil and gas development. The RRC’s decisions affect every Texan in some way.
In the 1800s, railroads served as a centerpiece of Texas life. By shuttling goods and services from one side of the state to the other, railroad companies offered something a horse and buggy could not – a quick and efficient way to get people and things across long distances. As the railroad industry grew, Texans quickly realized that companies wielded an inordinate amount of power. The railroad monopoly became the focus of public outrage, so much so that Texas lawmakers got concerned.
In 1891, the Texas Legislature established the Railroad Commission of Texas with the power to regulate the railroads. The Railroad Commission still exists 130 years later, but with the rise of the automobile, the agency’s jurisdiction has changed. As fossil-fueled transportation gained ground in the early 1900s, the Legislature looked to the Railroad Commission to address the potential for petroleum-pipeline operators to refuse to transport, which would allow for monopolies.
In 1917 the Legislature broadened the commission’s authority, passing the Pipeline Petroleum Law (Senate Bill 68, 35th Legislature, Regular Session), which declared oil pipelines as “common carriers.” This meant the pipelines were required to provide service to any company – not just private entities under contract – and placed them under the commission’s jurisdiction. This was the first act to designate the Railroad Commission as the agency to administer conservation laws relating to oil and gas. It laid the groundwork for the Railroad Commission to become what we know today, overseeing the Texas oil and gas industry.
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.
For many Texans, the name continues to be a source of confusion. University of Texas polling has indicated that only 42% of voters were able to correctly identify that the Railroad Commission is the agency that regulates oil and gas in Texas.. State investigations show that members of the public frequently call the Railroad Commission with complaints about trains. Some have suggested that a lack of knowledge about the agency has swayed the results of statewide elections for seats on the commission.
State lawmakers, advocates, and some railroad commissioners themselves have made many attempts to change the commission’s name. As the 2017 Sunset Review Board put it, “the name of an agency for which the public is electing statewide commissioners should not be so clearly misleading.” But each attempt to change the agency’s name has been met with stark resistance. The oil and gas industry largely funds the resistance to changing the name and likely benefits from the lack of public awareness of the commission’s true functions.
It’s past time to ensure Texans understand exactly what this agency does. Our state produces 41% of the nation’s oil. Many advocates feel that Texas voters should be knowledgeable and engaged in these elections, not standing at the ballot box thinking that they’re voting on Amtrak. 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.”
Winter Storm Uri in 2021 was a good reminder of why every Texan is affected by the actions of the Railroad Commission. The agency’s failure to take steps to keep natural gas flowing to power plants that winter were a major driver of the deadly blackouts.
The Railroad Commission oversees everything from pipeline safety to well-permitting and inspections.
In theory, part of the commission’s mission is to steward the state’s natural resources and environment. But the RRC has been sued for not preventing the waste of Texas’ natural resources and not providing adequate rulemaking notice to the public. Commission trouble spots also include leaving thousands of abandoned and polluting wells on farms and ranches across the state and having overly restrictive policies on public participation in open meetings.
Three elected railroad commissioners decide everything from what rules to make or repeal to what directives staff at the agency should follow and prioritize. Railroad commissioners serve six-year staggered terms, with one commissioner seat appearing on the ballot every two years. There are no term limits.
The Railroad Commission receives its funding through fees, taxes, and surcharges paid by the oil and gas industry. The agency also regularly receives funding from the federal government. Oil and gas permitting fees and production taxes comprise the bulk of the commission’s revenue. Therefore, when the price of oil falls, so too does the number of wells drilled, meaning the commission receives less revenue from fees and surcharges operators pay for various permits.
Like other state agencies in Texas, the Railroad Commission is subject to Sunset Review every 12 years, or it risks abolishment by the Legislature. The Sunset Advisory Commission’s review process provides an opportunity for Texas to examine the commission’s mission, priorities, and performance. The Sunset Advisory Commission has conducted several reviews of the Railroad Commission over the past decade, often leading to failing reviews for the agency, which has still been reauthorized by the legislature.