Barnett Shale

Legislature approves Railroad Commission bill, but critics call it weak

The Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring some changes at the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas.
The Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring some changes at the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas. TNS

A Democratic senator on Tuesday made an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to beef up a bill aimed at reforming and reauthorizing the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency — legislation environmental groups have decried as toothless — before the measure was approved overwhelmingly.

Sen. José Rodríguez sought to amend House Bill 1818 to require the Texas Railroad Commission to develop a searchable online database of violations by oil and gas companies and complaints against them, along with inspection reports and enforcement actions taken by the agency.

Those recommendations are contained in another bill Rodríguez filed, Senate Bill 568, which the Senate Natural Resources Committee approved last month on a 6-2 vote. “This is about transparency,” the El Paso Democrat said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

But Sen. Van Taylor of Plano said it would be too expensive to implement the amendment. He urged the Senate to reject Rodriguez’s amendment, which it did in a party-line vote.

Ultimately, the Senate approved the legislation on a 29-2 vote. It will now go to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has 10 days to sign or veto it, or let it become law without a signature.

Responding to Taylor’s contention, Rodríguez posted a tweet later Tuesday noting that the Railroad Commission is poised to get an extra $3 million for technology upgrades.

HB 1818 requires the agency to make several changes to the way it operates, but environmental and watchdog groups say it won’t do much to overhaul an agency known for its outdated name and coziness with the industry it regulates.

“This is a very modest bill that barely counts as reform,” Cyrus Reed, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said in a statement after the bill passed the House in late March. “There is some good in the bill on tracking enforcement practices, requiring a strategic plan and improving pipeline safety.”

HB 1818 is the byproduct of a review by the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies.

Sunset staff recommended a variety of major reforms last year, including changing the agency’s name to the “Texas Energy Resources Commission.” But in November, the commission snubbed almost all of the recommendations.

The vote on HB 1818 came the day after the release of a report by the Sierra Club and watchdog groups Texans for Public Justice and Public Citizen showing that the energy and natural resources industry contributed the second most to state legislative campaigns of any industry behind lawyers and lobbyists. Current Texas lawmakers took $11.3 million from the oil and gas industry over the past two election cycles, the report found.