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Railroad Commission Seat Gets Hotter as Oil Booms

The state's drilling and fracking frenzy is raising questions about safety, earthquakes and water use. That's raising the stakes for this year's Railroad Commission race.

Steve Brown (l.) and Ryan Sitton, Democratic and Republican nominees for Railroad Commissioner.

The advent of sideways drilling and hydraulic fracturing has triggered an oil and gas bonanza unseen in 30 years in oilfields across Texas, flooding the state’s treasury with tax revenue and almost singlehandedly lifting Texas out of recession.

But every silver lining has a cloud or two. Denton residents are poised to vote on a proposal banning fracking. North Texans are concerned about a spate of earthquakes near wastewater disposal wells. And a prolonged drought has prompted outcries over how much water energy producers use.

The Railroad Commission of Texas — which writes the rules and issues permits for oil and gas drillers — looms more important this election than in recent years. The state’s oldest regulatory body long ago shifted its attention away from railways to riding herd on oil and gas drillers, natural gas utilities, pipeline safety and mining.

Only one of the commission's three seats is open this year, with four candidates running to replace Barry Smitherman on a body whose job is getting tougher and facing more scrutiny.

Here's how they stack up.

Ryan Sitton, a Republican from Friendswood, outside Houston, touts industry expertise, boasting that if elected he will be the first engineer to serve on the commission in more than 50 years.

“My primary objective will be leading the agency to make decisions based on sound science and data to ensure that the citizens of Texas are confident in the development of our natural resources,” he says. 

Sitton, 39, is the founder and CEO of PinnacleAIS, an engineering firm that consults with some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies on well integrity issues.

Texas has the know-how to regulate its oil and gas industry, he says, and he plans to push back against the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other federal regulators that, he says, might intrude on the state’s production.

“Ryan believes for the first time in a generation the United States has the ability to achieve energy independence, with Texas leading the way,” his campaign spokesman said in an email.

On the issues:

Industry’s water use: Sitton says regulators should not single out oil and gas producers when addressing Texas’ water shortage because the industry accounts for less than 1 percent of water use statewide. (In some counties with heavy drilling, however, the industry is one of the biggest users.) Oil and gas companies should continue conservation efforts by increasing recycling and reuse as technology expands, he says, and Texas should develop a statewide water plan.

Links between earthquakes and oilfield wastewater wells: If data shows that some disposal wells are in fact causing seismic activity, Sitton says he would support restricting the use of those wells.

Fracking ban effort in Denton: “Ryan doesn't believe the proposed ban addresses the concerns Denton residents have expressed regarding noise, light, odor and proximity of development to homes,” his campaign spokesman says. “Ryan believes the Railroad Commission should engage with citizens to ensure they have accurate information regarding the activity that is taking place and work with municipalities if they have concerns.”

Sitton's campaign says it would be “unwise to have a patchwork of different governmental entities, imposing regulations that could discourage oil and gas production.”

Steve Brown, a Democrat, former chairman of the Fort Bend Democratic Party and legislative staffer, is director of small business initiatives at Houston METRO. 

Brown, 39, says the commission should limit oil and gas industry influence on its decisions, and bolster protections for the environment, public health and property rights.

“The agency is broken itself, and because of that there are so many people in the community — out in the state of Texas — who just don’t trust the process,” Brown says.

Brown says he would establish an “office of public advocacy” to advise the commission policies affecting landowners and consumers. “This office will also serve as a watchdog for citizens with grievances,” Brown says.

He also says lawmakers should revive a series of Sunset Commission proposals that would change the commission’s name, shorten the period in which commissioners can fundraise, bar commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expand its recusal policy and require commissioners to resign before running for another office.

On the issues:

Industry’s water use: Brown has called on the Legislature to spend $50 million in Rainy Day Fund money for research and development to improve technology for recycling oilfield wastewater, and he says the state should issue tax credits for energy companies that use recycled fracking water.

Links between earthquakes and oilfield wastewater wells: Brown calls the Railroad Commission’s effort to regulate disposal wells a positive step, but says it should do more to improve rattled communities’ confidence in the agency. (The agency’s proposal would require companies to submit additional information – including data on a region’s seismicity and any past earthquakes – when applying for a permit to drill a disposal well. The proposal also clarifies that the commission can slow or halt injections into a problematic well.) Brown has called for the commission to halt permitting of disposal wells for hydraulic fracturing water by 2020. He says improvements in wastewater recycling will make that possible, even as disposal wells proliferate today.

Proposal to ban fracking in Denton: Brown says local communities have the right to make such decisions. “These folks in Denton just felt like the process let them down,” he says. He has called for communities near shale oil production — with the state's guidance — to form councils to address quality-of-life concerns related to oil and gas production and waste disposal. 

Also on the ballot are Mark Miller, a Libertarian, and Martina Salinas of the Green Party.

Miller, a petroleum engineer, says his engineering expertise would come in handy on the commission. The 63-year-old says the agency should place property rights of landowners on “more equal footing” with those of mineral owners.

Salinas, 36, works in in the construction industry. In a comment to the Denton City Council last summer, she called for industry regulators to strengthen environmental protections. "Texas has a long and proud tradition in natural gas and oil drilling, but we need to stop trading our children’s futures for short-term financial gains,” she said. 

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