Will the Railroad Commission Ever Be Accurately Named?

A fracking operation in the Eagle Ford Shale region.
Rebranding the Railroad Commission to, for example, the Texas Oil and Gas Commission would increase transparency and better reflect the agency’s responsibilities, environmental and consumer advocates say.  via Flickr

Though the Railroad Commission of Texas hasn’t overseen trains for more than three decades, some members of the Legislature and the oil and gas lobby continue to fight to keep the agency’s misleading name. And in the 2017 session they’re likely to win.

On Thursday morning, the Sunset Commission — a 12-member board of legislators and public members that reviews state agencies’ operations — nixed a recommendation to change the Railroad Commission’s name to one that actually describes its role regulating oil and gas. In an April report, Sunset staff suggested that lawmakers rename the agency to the Texas Energy Resources Commission. But at a hearing today, the Sunset Commission members dropped the recommendation without publicly offering a reason.

The Railroad Commission’s review is its third since 2010. Previous attempts to pass reforms recommended by the Sunset Commission failed in the Legislature in part due to lawmakers squabbling over the name change. In 2013 and 2015, conservative legislators blocked bills that would’ve changed the agency’s name to the Texas Energy Commission or the Texas Oil and Gas Commission, arguing that it would be too costly and that the name has a historical significance.

Those issues have resurfaced this year. In August, Republican state Representative Dan Flynn told other Sunset Commission members at a hearing that “it doesn’t take long to figure out what [the Railroad Commission] is if you’re in the business.”

He added:“I just think it seems like we’re getting drawn into this political correctness business.”

But environmental and consumer advocates say lawmakers’ refusal to change the agency’s name is symbolic of its deep ties to the oil and gas industry. Rebranding to, say, the Texas Oil and Gas Commission would increase transparency and better reflect its responsibilities, they say. Sunset Commission staff have also recommended changing the agency’s name to the Texas Energy Resources Commission.

“It’s been a red herring in that it distracts Texans from what the agency is actually doing,” said Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “But at the end of the day if we have a better agency under a not-so-great name, we’ll have to deal with it.”

A report published Thursday by Texans for Public Justice, Sierra Club and Public Citizen found that 60 percent of the $11 million in campaign contributions to the three elected commissioners who oversee the Railroad Commission came from the oil and gas industry. That’s the kind of money that can not only buy influence but prevent what seems like the kind of agency rebranding that should’ve happened decades ago. Changing the name might also help voters better understand its functions and choose candidates uninfluenced by the oil and gas industry, environmental groups say.

At the hearing Thursday morning, the Sunset Commission also removed recommendations to require the State Office of Administrative Hearings to take on gas utility cases and increase bond requirements so that the Railroad Commission has sufficient money to plug wells should an operator abandon it. Dobbs said the commission was likely dropping more controversial recommendations so that a bill reauthorizing the Railroad Commission for 12 years had a better chance of passing.

The commission’s recommendations will be submitted to the Legislature, which is scheduled to convene on January 10.

Do you think free access to journalism like this is important? The Texas Observer is known for its fiercely independent, uncompromising work—which we are pleased to provide to the public at no charge in this space. That means we rely on the generosity of our readers who believe that this work is important. You can chip in for as little as 99 cents a month. If you believe in this mission, we need your help.

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist. She previously covered environmental issues at the Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica. At ProPublica, she was part of a team that reported on the water woes of the West, a project that was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University and was a 2017 Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

You May Also Like: