Energy agency policy raises eyebrows

06/17/2014 5:40 PM

06/17/2014 5:42 PM

Between investigating claims that earthquakes in Parker County may be linked to water wells used in the fracking process, and addressing concerns from legislators and residents understandably frustrated by the lack of decisive action in response, the Texas Railroad Commission has had a lot on its plate these past few years.

Perhaps that is why it relieved its staff in 2012 of having to speak with members of the media.

According to The Associated Press, the three-person panel that heads the sizable state agency approved a policy two years ago this August that prevents members of the media from directly accessing agency staff.

At the commission, those staff include subject-matter experts, engineers, scientists and a new in-house seismologist, all of whom can provide insight into agency research and the complexities of the department charged with regulating the the oil and gas industry.

It’s fair to be skeptical about the agency’s reticence to offer that expertise to the media — and by default, the public — who are instead left to speculate and cobble together answers to questions funneled through a single spokesperson, who responds to media only via email.

To be fair, it’s not unusual, or even unacceptable, that a government agency would seek to maintain a singular and controlled message when speaking with the press. Public agencies often have vast and overlapping responsibilities, and ensuring that accurate information is disseminated efficiently can become an overwhelming task.

But restricting or even strictly limiting media from speaking to public servants without a clear explanation for imposing such a policy — the commission has failed to provide one — is equal parts disconcerting and infuriating.

As a state agency, with a responsibility to the public, the commission has an obligation to be both transparent and responsive, particularly at a time when there are many questions about natural gas drilling that require answers and many issues that require further investigation.

The restrictive policy makes it appear that the Railroad Commission is dodging its duty.

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