This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
During a legislative hearing this year related to hydraulic fracturing, state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, made a reference to what he thought was an unfair portrayal of the industry in the film Promised Land.
“My wife’s seen it, she didn’t like it, so don’t go if you haven’t,” Keffer said at the hearing, which featured testimony from oil and gas representatives.
Friendliness toward the drilling industry is typical for Texas, where many lawmakers receive campaign contributions from oil and gas groups or have investments in drilling companies. The three elected members of the Railroad Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry, have received significant contributions from the very industry they regulate.
Critics say that the industry exerts excessive control over elected officials, especially in boom times. But lawmakers and the drilling industry say that the donations are the way things operate. And lawmakers say that they make their decisions based on the best interests of the state.
Keffer, who heads the House Energy Resources Committee, holds an interest in the Emerald Royalty Fund, which specializes in mineral rights. His broad stock portfolio includes shares in more than a dozen oil and gas companies, according to a 2011 filing with the Texas Ethics Commission. He received nearly $73,000 in the 2011-12 election cycle from the industry, according to the left-leaning nonprofit group Texans for Public Justice.
Keffer said outside groups watch lawmakers’ actions, and “if I start looking like I’m just an oil-and-gas guy, then my credibility is destroyed here in the Legislature.”
The energy, natural resources and waste sector gives more money to Texas candidates than any other economic sector does, according to Texans for Public Justice. The group identified nearly $20 million in donations from groups and people with oil and gas connections to state legislators and other elected officials during the 2011-12 campaign cycle. (Alternative energy’s donations were negligible, the group said.)
Political contributions and personal involvement are hardly unique to the drilling industry, supporters say. “Individuals’ areas of expertise are a valuable asset to the people of Texas,” Deb Hastings, executive vice president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said in an email.
Charles Stenholm, a senior policy adviser for OFW Law in Washington and a former congressman from Texas’ 17th district, noted that he had been a farmer while serving on the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture.
Stricter rules, he said, could “mean that no one in the energy business could serve in the U.S. Congress, and that would not be constitutional to start with and it would not be helpful.”
But environmentalists feel outgunned.
Many state policies, on issues like air and water pollution, “are inexorably or inextricably woven to benefit the oil and gas industry,” said Tom "Smitty" Smith, the Texas state director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Environmentalists often resort to trying to mitigate bad policies.
Smith did praise Keffer for pushing through a bill last session that required disclosure of many of the chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing.
The House Energy Resources Committee’s members include state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, a business development representative for an oil field supply company; state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, the committee’s vice chairwoman, who receives industry royalties; and state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, who is the president of an oil and energy consulting firm.
Oil and gas accounted for more than 8 percent of the state’s gross domestic product in 2011, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, so it is not surprising that many lawmakers are in the industry. It is also nothing new. Many former governors, including George W. Bush, have been oilmen.
Rob Looney, treasurer of the Texas Oil and Gas Political Action Committee, wrote in an email that "a review of voting history would show that elected officials who have received support from Texas Oil and Gas PAC do not always agree with the industry’s positions."
There have been efforts afoot in the Legislature to tighten the rules on industry donations to Railroad Commissioners, but the commissioners say that such rules would be stricter than those for other elected state officials.
The commissioners are not categorically banned from making personal oil and gas investments or receiving royalties. But provisions in state code and special rules promulgated by the commission are aimed at preventing improprieties, according commission spokeswoman Gaye McElwain.