No, the Railroad Commission of Texas does not regulate trains, and some state officials are tired of you asking.
Political insiders are well aware that the state’s oldest regulatory agency long ago shifted its attention from railways to oil and gas drillers, natural gas utilities and pipeline safety. But that insight is far from universal, even in a state that prides itself on its role as the nation's petroleum king.
So a group of lawmakers is trying — again — to change the agency’s name, with legislation that has united even some oil execs and environmentalists. This time, proponents want to call the agency the Texas Energy Commission.
Similar proposals fell flat in 2005, 2009, 2011 and 2013, victims of a mix of nostalgia and concerns about unintended consequences.
The change would require an amendment to the Texas Constitution, since the document mentions the agency by name. That means two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber must approve before putting the question to Texas voters.
With a flood of out-of-staters settling in Texas, and operators tapping shale in new corners of the state, “now is the time to do this,” so folks know who to call about problems associated with drilling, said Rep. Larry Phillips, the proposal’s primary author.
Speaking Monday night to the House Committee on Energy Resources, on which three co-authors of the legislation sit, the Republican from Sherman recalled a phone call from an elderly woman in Van Alstyne who was upset that a railroad crossing was shut down — and even angrier that Railroad Commission staffers told her they couldn’t do anything about that Texas Department of Transportation issue.
“There’s a lot of people, I think, who don’t realize that the Railroad Commission is there,” Phillips said. “If she has confusion, that’s enough.” (In an interview, Phillips said that the Van Alstyne railroad crossing has since been reopened.)
The proposal’s backers include Ryan Sitton, one of three sitting railroad commissioners, who testified that changing the name could make the general public more confident in the agency’s role as an industry watchdog. (The agency’s mission also includes championing fossil fuels.)
“It’s about transparency, good government and keeping people informed about what we’re doing,” Sitton said. But some lawmakers consider the name change unnecessary, and even risky.
For years, questions have loomed about whether changing the name could lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take away authority it delegated the Railroad Commission over groundwater affected by wastewater injection wells.
“It’s a big responsibility, and I don’t think that the oil and gas community, we could get the authority the Railroad Commission has today, if we didn’t already have it,” said Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
Craddick is the father of Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, who has called the name change a good idea, if Texas treads carefully.
Phillips and other supporters of the legislation pointed to a legal opinions from two prominent law firms concluding there was no such threat, and a letter from David Gray, director of EPA Region 6, based in Dallas. That letter called the re-naming a “non-substantial program revision” that would not jeopardize the agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act authority.
But Craddick said his oil-loving district needed assurances from EPA’s higher-ups in Washington.
“Larry, if you’re so sure of this, and it’s so easy, just give us the letter,” he told Phillips before asking hearing witnesses whether they had a letter from Washington (they didn’t). “You know, the district I represent, it’s a little risky without the letter.”
Cyrus Reed, conservation director with the Lone Star Sierra Club, testified in support of the legislation, saying the name change would help those who live near oil and gas wells know where to report leaks, blowouts or other hazards.
Reed told Craddick that he knows several EPA officials, and could ask about that letter.
The committee left the legislation pending.