When Texas lawmakers passed a bill last year banning drones from flying near animal feedlots and oil and gas facilities, proponents said it was needed to protect critical infrastructure from terrorists. But critics suspected that the bill was intended to prevent journalists and researchers from shining a light on factory farms and the fracking industry. In 2011, a drone hobbyist in Dallas happened across a meat packing company dumping pig blood into a creek that flows into the Trinity River. The company closed down its slaughterhouse operations as part of an agreement with the city. This kind of drone activism has alarmed many in the agriculture industry.
Now a prominent oil and gas lobbyist appears to confirm suspicions that a target of the legislation, which made the offense punishable by up to 180 days in jail, was activists and journalists.
In a 45-minute talk at a symposium on the energy industry in Austin earlier this month, Ben Sebree, a top oil and gas lobbyist, told his audience that the drone legislation was an “anti-peeping Tom bill” that would serve as a “deterrent against bad journalists,” according to an audio recording of the speech obtained by the Observer.
“Not only will that be a deterrent hopefully against bad guys, although bad guys generally don’t care about the law, but it is also a deterrent against bad journalists,” Sebree said at the Texas Journal of Oil, Gas, and Energy Law’s annual conference. “So, depending on your point of view, like I said, I represent the industry.”
In an email to the Observer on Monday, Sebree said that he “misspoke if I used the word journalists” and that he “was referring to other bad actors, both disturbed people inside our nation as well as international terrorists.” He said that he intended his talk to be a summary of the bills passed by the Legislature that affected the oil and gas industry, “both positive and negative.” Sebree was general counsel to the Texas Oil and Gas Association from 1990 to 2012 and serves on the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Sebree runs Sebree Law Firm and Sebree Solutions, Inc, a lobbying firm that specializes in oil and gas advocacy.
Sebree’s talk at the symposium provides an unvarnished look at how the oil and gas industry uses its immense power to persuade the Texas Legislature. Though it’s no secret that oil lobbyists usually get their way at the Capitol, industry insiders rarely reveal their tactics, especially when their messaging behind closed doors looks different from what they say to lawmakers during public hearings. A recording of Sebree’s talk and a copy of his presentation was provided to the Observer by Documented, a watchdog group tracking corporate influence on public policy.
Sebree said that one of the industry’s wins at the Capitol in 2017 was passing a bill that changed the makeup of the advisory committee that oversees TexNet, a state monitoring program that studies the cause and location of earthquakes in Texas. The program was set up in 2015 by the Legislature after a dramatic increase in earthquakes, which research has linked to the injection of fracking wastewater into underground wells. TexNet is overseen by a nine-member advisory committee. Last year, industry lobbyists got the Legislature to increase the number of members of the oil and gas industry on the committee from two to at least three.
“Given that there is this program, it was decided that there ought to be a committee to kinda oversee [TexNet] and look at potential biases,” Sebree said during his presentation. He told the Observer that the issue of earthquakes had become “extremely politicized” and that “though the oil and gas industry is incredibly important to Texas, our country, and the world, there are those who see it negatively no matter the facts.”
Sebree also highlighted the industry’s successful fight against eminent domain reform. In 2017, a number of landowner groups, including the Texas Farm Bureau and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, supported more than 35 bills strengthening landowners’ rights. The groups supported legislation that would’ve forced condemning entities, such as pipeline companies, to pay legal fees for landowners in some circumstances.
Sebree said that oil and gas lobbyists and others successfully killed the bills by using a tried-and-true technique: by linking legislation to trial attorneys. (This is seen as a group that generally supports Democrats.)
“Tagging something as pro-plaintiff lawyers bill is an effective way to disparage something at the Capitol,” he said. “In our view [the bills] would’ve set up a situation where the lawyers would recommend to their clients that they go to court and then it’s a crapshoot when you get into court, especially if you’re in a hometown jury.”
The industry, along with state and local governmental entities, eventually succeeded in getting lawmakers to remove the provision from the bills, which angered landowner groups. Sebree said that after the groups wrote to the Legislature criticizing the bill authors, the “entire Legislature lost interest in moving it forward” and the bills never reached the governor’s desk.
Editors note: The story has been updated to reflect additional input from Mr. Sebree.