Editorials

Reboot the Railroad Commission

THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Operations in the Texas oil patch have slowed with the declining price of crude. This well is near Big Lake in the Permian Basin of West Texas.
Operations in the Texas oil patch have slowed with the declining price of crude. This well is near Big Lake in the Permian Basin of West Texas. Star-Telegram

The state Sunset Advisory Commission staff is taking another swing at improving efficiency and transparency at the agency that regulates the Texas oil and gas industry, and that includes renewing a plea that the agency stop hiding behind a name that “misleads the public.”

The Railroad Commission of Texas has nothing at all to do with railroads — and hasn’t for more than a decade.

In recommendations published Friday, the Sunset staff said for the third time since 2011 that the name should be changed to better reflect what the agency really does. The suggestion: Texas Energy Resources Commission.

What could be more fundamental to transparency in government than a name that is not misleading?

The need to change this one has long been recognized (in 2011, the Sunset staff recommended changing it to Texas Oil and Gas Commission), but the Legislature can’t seem to complete the effort.

In fact, we’re lucky that a change is even back on the table. Three days before the 2015 legislative session was set to end, a bill surfaced that would postpone the Railroad Commission’s scheduled 2017 Sunset review until 2023.

Only deft maneuvers in the House led by Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, kept the 2017 review process on track.

The Sunset Advisory Commission analyzes each state agency every 12 years to recommend operating improvements. The Sunset review can even result in an agency being discontinued.

Besides the name change, the latest Railroad Commission review says regulation of the oil and gas industry needs more teeth and better record-keeping.

It says the commission “falls short of providing incentive for operators to comply (with regulations) without first having to be told by the commission’s limited field staff.”

Oil and gas operators are required to post financial guarantees, called bonds, to help cover the cost of plugging wells and cleaning up drilling sites, but the current requirement covers less than 16 percent of that cost. Higher bonds should be required.

The commission needs additional statutory authority to ensure pipeline safety.

Finally, the Sunset report says the commission should transfer regulatory authority over gas utilities to the Public Utility Commission, which has more experience and expertise with setting utility rates.

Industry lobbying and objections from elected commissioners killed Railroad Commission sunset legislation in 2011 and 2013.

This time, lawmakers should get it done.

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