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Proposal Would Delay Railroad Commission Scrutiny

The Railroad Commission of Texas would avoid intense legislative scrutiny until 2023 under a deal reached late Friday, a surprise six-year reprieve that rankled the oil and gas regulator’s critics.

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*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. 

The Railroad Commission of Texas would avoid intense legislative scrutiny until 2023 under a deal reached late Friday, a surprise six-year reprieve that rankled the oil and gas regulator’s critics.

The curiously named agency (which also regulates mining, pipeline safety and natural gas utilities, but not railroads) was originally due in 2017 for review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, a body of lawmakers that periodically weighs the effectiveness of state agencies. But an agreement hashed out by a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers would push back that deadline, delaying any major efforts to overhaul the agency.

In its latest form, House Bill 3123 would delay sunset deadlines for a number of state agencies large and small, including the Texas Education Agency and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The conference committee – chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo – added the Railroad Commission, though it wasn’t included in either chamber’s amended bill.

The change irked at least some of the agency’s critics, including those who argue that regulators, struggling to balance their joint mission of industry watchdog and industry champion, should do more to address the effects of urban drilling and wastewater disposal wells.

“The Railroad Commission of Texas needs fixing badly. Its antiquated name alone tells everybody that,” Cyrus Reed, conservation director with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement late Friday. "To suggest that we don’t need to bother looking under the hood of this vital state agency until eight years from now is outrageous.”

The Senate voted 29-2 to approve the measure after a brief discussion early Saturday afternoon.

Nelson said the Railroad Commission provision was added simply to accommodate the Sunset Advisory Commission's schedule. 

"The Sunset schedule was too full for the upcoming cycle, and we needed to move some agencies ahead on the schedule," she said in a statement. 

But some House members were also unhappy about the proposal. Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, said his colleagues plan to object to the conference committee’s report – largely because of the Railroad Commission addition. 

Rep. Larry Gonzales, a member of the conference committee, praised the Railroad Commission's leadership, saying it used its dollars efficiently.

“What we see from the Railroad Commission is exactly what we expect to see from an agency,” said the Round Rock Republican, who also chairs the committee that oversees that agency’s budget. “The leadership there has been fantastic.”

The Railroad Commission has undergone the sunset process during the last two legislative sessions, but it escaped a major overhaul both times.

In 2013, lawmakers rejected a wide range of Sunset Commission recommendations, including changing the commission’s name, shortening the period in which commissioners can fundraise, barring commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expanding its recusal policy and requiring commissioners to resign before running for another office. At that time, the Legislature set the commission’s next review date at 2017.

"The Sunset recommendations are still available for legislators to pursue," Nelson's statement said.

The House did not take up the measure on Saturday.

Representatives from the Railroad Commission did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

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