House Bill Sets Up Railroad Commission Fight

Members of the Texas Railroad Commission would be allowed to meet behind closed doors to discuss the details of disputed cases under a bill tentatively approved by the Texas House on Monday.

The Railroad Commission would also become the Oil and Gas Commission under the measure, SB 655, by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. The name change seems to be the least controversial provision of the legislation, though, since the commission hasn’t regulated Texas railroads since the 1970s. Its main job is to regulate the oil and gas industry, hence the new moniker.

An amendment by state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, would permit the three-member commission to recess and discuss contested cases brought before it in private. It’s drawn the ire of advocacy groups, which said the commission is already subpar when it comes to transparency.

“As it is written, there is no reason to think [the commission] will ever have an open meeting again,” said Thomas Brocato, an attorney with the Atmos Cities Steering Committee. The group is a standing coalition of more than 150 Texas cities that represents municipal and residential consumers in gas utility regulatory matters.

But King likened the proposed private sessions to what a three-judge panel does during an appeals process or what county commissioners do in executive session.

 

“It’s very difficult in a courtroom environment for three judges to have a discussion while others … are presenting their case,” he said. Commissioners would not meet to discuss policy, he said, only disputes between industry members, such as oil and gas companies. King added that commissioners could not take any action during their private discussions, and that the meeting would be recorded.

Brocato balked at that assessment. “There is nothing in the language that mentions recording,” he says. The amendment simply reads “The Texas Oil and Gas Commission may conduct a closed meeting to deliberate a final decision in a certain contested case.”

King's amendment was adopted without debate and without a record vote. King conceded that he isn’t sure what the Senate will think of his amendment, simply saying “that was a different matter altogether.”

How the commission is made up is yet another matter that could set up a fight between the lower and upper chambers.

The House bill would keep essentially the same commission that exists now: three elected commissioners. The Senate bill would reduce the size of the commission from three to just one elected leader, as the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission recommended in a January report.

Current commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, and former commissioner Michael Williams have announced their candidacies for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. The proposed legislation requires automatic resignation if a “commissioner announces or becomes a candidate for elected office, other than the office of commissioner, in any general, special, or primary election.” (Williams resigned last month.)

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said oil and gas industry leaders like the status-quo because it allows them to face less strict enforcement of rules and regulations. In 2009, he said, the commission dealt with just 4 percent of more than 80,000 reported industry violations. Keeping three commissioners who are distracted by their desire for higher office and whose campaign coffers they can pad, is a better deal for the multibillion-dollar industry, Bonnen said. "If I'm the industry, I want a disinterested three-member board who's continually worried about [their] fundraising ability," he said.

But state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who sponsored the bill, said putting just one commissioner in charge would put too much power in one person's hands. "We want to make sure we have that balance of thought, that balance of wisdom, with the three commissioners," Keffer said. And he said the oil and gas industry that is regulated by the commission favored keeping the three-member commission. His bill would also address concerns about commissioners using the office as a political springboard, he said, by limiting campaign contributions. The bill would also limit campaign contributions to commissioners from businesses that have issues pending before the body.

Editor's note: The story has been corrected to reflect that former commissioner Michael Williams resigned last month after declaring his candidacy for U.S. Senate.

 

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