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Will Lawmakers Save the Railroad Commission?

UPDATED: If lawmakers don't do something quickly, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas in the state, could disappear.

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Updated, May 24, 1 p.m.:

In a statement Friday, the Texas Oil and Gas Association urged lawmakers to extend the remit of the Railroad Commission for at least six years. The association "remains very concerned that to date, the Railroad Commission has not been included in a sunset safety net bill," said TXOGA vice president Deb Hastings. "Failure to extend the Railroad Commission would create significant uncertainty that would have serious consequences for the state’s economy.”

Original story:

If lawmakers do not act soon, the agency that regulates oil and gas in Texas could disappear.

A legislative review of that agency, the Texas Railroad Commission, failed this session, and a measure that might be used to keep the agency alive until 2015 or later doesn't include any reference to the RRC.

“It means the Railroad Commission will go away,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Bonnen chairs the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is charged with periodically assessing and renewing the charters of state agencies. The RRC's "sunset" legislation failed in 2011, and lawmakers extended the life of the agency until this year. It didn't work; the legislation that would have renewed the agency’s charter and made additional changes has already failed again.

What's more, House Bill 1675, this year's version of the “safety net” that rescued the RRC and other agencies last year, doesn't include the Railroad Commission this time. Unless lawmakers add it in the final days of the session, the agency will go out of business. 

Despite Bonnen’s pessimism, others say that there is a way forward for the agency. Lawmakers who meet in conference committee to reconcile House and Senate versions of HB 1675 could take special measures to extend the life of the RRC for two more years.

“I’m confident that we will get it solved,” said state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who noted the importance of the agency. "There are a couple of vehicles to resolve it." One is the conference committee on House Bill 1675, he said.

“Obviously [we’d] like to get it resolved in the regular session,” Fraser said.

Reached by phone on Monday in Washington, D.C., where he was testifying before a U.S. Senate committee, Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman declined to discuss the issue: “I never comment on ongoing legislation. ...We’ll just have to wait and see how it all works out.”

Asked why the agency was not included in HB 1675, the safety-net bill, Bonnen referred to the fact that it had been through the  process two consecutive times — in this Legislature and two years ago — but the legislation to make changes to the agency failed both times. Bonnen and other lawmakers have sought some ethics reforms for the agency, which is headed by three elected commissioners who take contributions from the oil and gas industry. But the commissioners have argued against the reforms.

“I think there are a lot of people around the Capitol that believe that the agency should only go through the sunset process twice,” Bonnen said. If that doesn’t work, “maybe … we don’t need that agency anymore.” He said he had feared that “due to conduct of the commission and their executive director that [sunset] legislation wouldn’t pass.” They had lobbied against the sunset legislation, he said.

Asked who would take up oil and gas regulatory responsibilities if the Railroad Commission were to disband, Bonnen said, “We have agencies in the state that could take over those responsibilities.”

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