Why Does the Texas Railroad Commission Even Exist?

Why Does the Texas Railroad Commission Even Exist?
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

On Monday the Texas State Legislature's Sunset Commission gathered together to review the Texas Railroad Commission. State commissions are required to undergo a sunset review every 12 years, but the Railroad Commission, the entity charged with regulating oil and gas activities in the state, has been under the microscope frequently in recent years. 

The Railroad Commission has undergone two previous reviews, but has failed to actually make the changes recommended by the Sunset Commission, has routinely failed to enforce its own rules and still has no system for tracking violations, the Sunset Commission noted in a blistering report published in April. 

At this point though, it's a puzzlement why the Railroad Commission continues to exist at all. 

The commission was established in 1891 to oversee the railroad industry (hence the name), but in the early 1900s oil was discovered in Texas and the Railroad Commission started overseeing various aspects of the state's oil and gas industry.  

After the massive East Texas oil fields were discovered in the 1930s the commission took control of the state's oil production, monitoring how much oil was allowed onto the market. Over the course of the following decades the Railroad Commission became one of the most powerful entities in the state because of its ability to control oil, the world's first oil cartel. (The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was actually modeled on the Railroad Commission.)

However, the commission has long been known as a pro-oil industry entity. As such, the commissioners often have strong ties to oil, while the body as a whole has appeared to be more focused on taking care of the oil industry than on actually regulating it. On top of that, commissioners don't even deal with oil spills. 

Last week the El Paso Times reported internal emails from the group showed Railroad Commission officials have actually spotted oil spills and done nothing about them.

All oil spills in the state are against commission rules, but commission officials have repeatedly failed to look into reported spills, according the El Paso Times. State Sen. José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat, got a trove of documents from the Railroad Commission in response to an inquiry prompted by reports of the commission photographing oil spills during the recent floods across the state, but not doing anything about the spills.

In June 2015 oil spills on the Red River were ultimately "determined not to be a priority" because of other flooding at the time, a commission employee stated in an internal email.  

Emails exchanged by commission officials show reports of spills on Hickory Creek and the Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, located on the "Central Highway" one of four super highways for migratory birds in North America. Despite the fact that the same company, Jetta Operating Co. Inc., that had the first spill in the wildlife refuge had another spill a few months later, the commission has never fined the company. 

In the wake of the heavy storms that swept through Houston last May, Railroad Commission officials discussed a "mess" of crude oil that they'd spotted moving downstream on the San Jacinto River over the following weeks. "All this mess has gone downstream into Lake Houston and maybe beyond; it will also get spread out over whatever it lands upon when the water recedes,” Railroad Commission geoscientist Olin Macnamara wrote to coworkers on June 10 according to the El Paso Times. “We may need to prepare for a lot of calls, now that public [access to] these areas is available & folks are going back home.”

Meanwhile, the Railroad Commission has claimed that public safety is the commission's "highest priority."

The sunset review is designed to evaluate the state commissions and determine whether or not the entities should be disbanded or altered in any way. There's talk of finally changing the Railroad Commission's name to something that actually is tied to what the commission does. It's estimated the change will cost at least $500,000.

However, at this point it seems fair to say the Sunset Commission might as well get rid of the Railroad Commission entirely. The state is tight on money already. If we really need an entity to observe oil spills and do nothing to deal with them, we've already got the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 


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