A day before an important legislative hearing about the future of the Texas Railroad Commission, interpersonal tensions boiled over at an open meeting of the three commissioners who head the agency.
Tuesday’s meeting began routinely, with discussion of oil and gas cases. The commissioners also voted to approve new rules to make recycling of oilfield water easier — a change that both industry groups and environmentalists have sought amid water scarcity concerns. Commissioner David Porter hailed the new measure as an "incredible step forward," and the other two commissioners also praised it. (The new rule will take effect on April 15.)
About an hour in, however, the meeting got tense. Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman began grilling Porter about a 113-page report on the Eagle Ford Shale that Porter had put together (with input from local officials and industry groups) and published this month. As has been previously reported, Smitherman was irked because he did not see a copy of the report before Porter circulated it to news outlets.
Smitherman noted how “very, very slick” the report was — with such high-quality paper that his pen could not mark it up. He asked Porter how much the report had cost to compile and who had funded it. “Did you pay for it personally, or was it paid for by the commission?” Smitherman asked.
Porter did not know the cost of the report offhand. As for the funding source, “some of it was paid by the campaign personally,” and some by the Railroad Commission office, Porter said.
Smitherman, a former prosecutor, proceeded for about 25 minutes to ask Porter about specific items — maps, recommendations, analysis — in the report. Porter did not have the report with him, and someone went to retrieve a copy from his office.
Smitherman spent several minutes on a provision in the report that quoted Porter as having directed the Railroad Commission staff "to apply a higher level of scrutiny to applications for flaring and venting operations." (Flaring, which refers to the burning of natural gas that can’t be otherwise used, is a concern in the Eagle Ford and elsewhere in Texas, because of air emissions and also the waste of gas.)
“Is this a new requirement that you have unilaterally put in place?” Smitherman asked Porter.
“No,” Porter responded. “This was something that was discussed with staff.”
Smitherman said that he’d like to get a report from the commission's legal staff on whether oil and gas operators will now be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny because of Porter's report.
After Smitherman finished grilling Porter, he moved the discussion on to sunset legislation, which gets heard in the House Energy Resources Committee on Wednesday afternoon. (Sunset legislation refers to a standard review process by the Legislature. All major Texas state agencies go through it periodically, and it typically results in modest changes to the structure of an agency.) The three commissioners are all testifying in Energy Resources hearing Wednesday.
The commissioners erupted anew in debate, this time over the structure of the commission, which will be addressed in Wednesday’s hearing.
“Mr. Chairman, there is something I would like you to clarify for me,” Porter said to Smitherman.
Porter was concerned about a proposal Smitherman had recently circulated to several key lawmakers — including state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, and state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, who is carrying the Railroad Commission sunset bill — about proposed changes to the commission’s structure. According to Smitherman, his proposal would ensure that the commission chairman served as the commission’s point-person for the Legislature.
But Porter accused Smitherman of seeking to create a “super-chairman.” Smitherman denied this, saying that his proposal provides for the rotation of the chairmanship, which Porter would assume in January 2015 and Christi Craddick would assume in 2017. “This proposal doesn’t even apply to me,” Smitherman said, meaning that he would no longer be chairman when the provision about the liaising with the Legislature took effect.
Craddick, who had been silent throughout the Eagle Ford Task Force exchange, interjected that Smitherman’s proposal had not been shown to her or Porter before its circulation to the Legislature.
“I’m somewhat offended, Barry, you’ve been shopping this proposal and handing it out” without consulting the other two commissioners, she said. It was, she added, “kind of like [how Commissioner] David [Porter] gave you a copy of his report and you poured him out.”
Craddick said she was against the proposal.
For those who want to see the Railroad Commission meeting, the archived video will soon be posted here.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that the Railroad Commission sunset bill will be heard Wednesday in the House Natural Resources Committee. It is in fact the House Energy Resources Committee. The text has been corrected.