House moves to keep Texas Railroad Commission open despite side debates

The Texas House gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would keep the agency that oversees the state’s oil and gas industry functioning until 2029 — but only after members dragged controversial topics like immigration and bathroom restrictions for transgender people into what should have been a routine debate.

House Bill 1818 by state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, would keep the Texas Railroad Commission’s name — instead of the re-naming it the Oil and Gas Commission — while giving the agency more oversight of pipeline construction in Texas.

Debate over the relatively tame measure regarding oil and gas regulation got a jolt on Tuesday when lawmakers in the Texas House adopted language demanding businesses working in the oil patch verify their workers are here legally.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, had tendered an amendment calling for the verification, known as e-verify, as a way of pointing out what he called Republican hypocrisy on immigration issues.

I wanted to call out hypocrisy.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas

“I wanted to call out hypocrisy of the people in the GOP who wanted only to attack immigrants and not go after employer sanctions,” he said.

Lawmakers essentially called his bluff, however, adopting the amendment — though not before stripping out language calling for executives of any company that does business with the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas operations, must attest, under the penalty of perjury, that the company “does not knowingly employ any person not lawfully present.”

The amendment came as part of a debate on a bill to continue the Texas Railroad Commission. Subject to the Texas Sunset Act, the agency will be abolished Sept. 1, unless continued by the legislature.

House Speaker Joe Straus also thwarted a Tea Party-backed effort to tack “bathroom bill” restrictions onto an unrelated measure regulating the agency overseeing oil and gas.

Two Tarrant County lawmakers also offered amendments to the railroad commission legislation, all of them instigated by a controversial permit application for a saltwater injection well near Lake Arlington.

Local officials have voiced opposition to a permit request from BlueStone Natural Resources II of Tulsa to drill an injection well on the western edge of Lake Arlington. It would be used for the disposal of excess gas and brackish water produced by their wells within the immediate area. A public hearing in Austin on the permit has been scheduled for late May.

The proposed injection well, which would be in far east Fort Worth, has drawn opposition from Fort Worth, Arlington, the Trinity River Authority and several cities in North Texas. BlueStone has said that the permit meets the state’s strict guidelines.

Democrat State Rep. Chris Turner, who represents Arlington and Grand Prairie, proposed one amendment that would have banned disposal wells within three miles of a dam, lake or reservoir. City officials have voiced concerns about the well threatening water quality. They also worry that the dam’s integrity could be jeopardized by the seismic activity that has been linked to injection wells.

In another amendment, Turner sought to protect bans adopted by cities against injection wells prior to the passage of HB 40 in 2015 that limited local regulation of drilling activity to largely aboveground activities, but the bill also had a “safe harbor” provision that says any ordinance that was in effect for five years and allowed drilling should be considered economically reasonable.

Both of those amendments were eventually withdrawn by Turner after he said he learned of “good faith negotiations” that were underway by one of the cities with the permit application.

A third amendment would have required the railroad commission to hold a public hearing in the area where the proposed well was to be drilled if the city had a population of at least 150,000 and if a lawmaker asked for it. State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, offered a similar measure.

Staff writer Max B. Baker contributed to this report, which includes material from the Austin American-Statesman, The Texas Tribune and The Associated Press.