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TribBlog: The Railroad Commission Holds Forth

Texas' three Railroad Commissioners today proposed ways to restructure and rename their commission in hearings today in the Capitol.

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Texas' three Railroad Commissioners today proposed ways to restructure and rename their commission in hearings today at the Capitol.

The commissioners, along with many witnesses from the oil and gas industry, environmental groups and the general public, appeared before the Legislature's Sunset Committee, which periodically considers potential structural changes to and even abolition of a variety of state agencies.

In a report released last month, Sunset Advisory Commission staff recommended replacing the three elected commissioners with five part-time appointees, and changing the Railroad Commission's name to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission to better reflect the agency's mission (which no longer includes regulating railroads).

Victor Carrillo, the outgoing chairman of the Railroad Commission, said that he would "wholeheartedly support renaming the agency" something more relevant. He proposed it be called the Texas Energy Commission, to reflect responsibilities that go beyond oil and gas.

However, "I stridently disagree" with the notion of replacing the three elected commissioners with five part-time appointees, Carrillo said, citing the workload. He said he could support a "hybrid" system in which the chairman was elected but was supplemented by two part-time appointees.

Michael Williams, another commissioner, said that he could also support a one-elected-commissioner model, in the interest of making the commission nimbler. "There are some challenges quite frankly in having a three-headed animal," he said.

Elizabeth Ames Jones, the third commissioner, said that she opposed the notion of a model with part-time commissioners.

The commissioners were also quizzed about the low rate of enforcement actions. Of more than 80,000 reported oil and gas production violations in fiscal 2009, less than 4 percent led to enforcement actions by the commission's central office. Williams said many of the violations were for minor issues like poor signage, but conceded that the Railroad Commission does not have a central database that would take note of which violations were serious and which were not. 

There was also animated discussion about the Sunset Commission staff's recommendation to move rate-making oversight for gas to the Public Utility Commission and out of the Railroad Commission. Williams said he was opposed, citing hazards of divorcing safety oversight from rate-making.

And there was back-and-forth over another hot issue related to the three-elected-commissioner structure: the Railroad Commission's reputation as a launch-pad for commissioners seeking bigger political offices. Both Ames Jones and Williams were poised to seek the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had decided this year to step down.

"Two of three of this really important commission are actively running for another office," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. In the meantime, he noted, those commissioners are "raising money from folks you're regulating ... That's not what I personally want to continue."

A study released yesterday by the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen found that as much as 80 percent of campaign donations for Railroad Commissioners came from employees in the industries they regulate.

Ames Jones, who plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2012, told the Sunset Commission: "I've been very transparent with the people of Texas."

As of 4:45 p.m., the Sunset Commission, which has been meeting since this morning and will also meet tomorrow, had yet to get to another controversial item on the agenda: the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

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