Last month, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter seemed keenly interested in an arcane dispute before the Federal Communications Commission.
“It was recently brought to our attention that a few oil and gas pipeline companies operating in Texas have been trying for more than four years to acquire frequencies from Maritime Communications/Land Mobile”— a bankrupt company being investigated for alleged misconduct while bidding on its licenses, a letter with Porter’s signature told federal regulators. “Unfortunately, the Commission’s processing of their applications apparently has been delayed by an ongoing hearing.”
The pro-industry letter took no position on Maritime’s legal troubles or the FCC's probe of the telecommunications company, which had stalled efforts by several oil and gas companies to tap wireless frequencies used to remotely monitor pipelines.
But the words contained in the letter weren’t really Porter’s, or those of anyone at his agency, which regulates oil and gas production, pipeline safety, mining and natural gas utilities. Lawyers for Enbridge — one of the pipeline companies stuck in the bureaucratic mud — drafted the letter some 1,500 miles away from Austin, according to a series of emails obtained by The Texas Tribune that illustrate the close ties between Porter and the industries he oversees.
“Attached is the draft letter our DC lawyers put together,” Justin Stegall, a Houston-based government affairs specialist, wrote to Caleb Troxclair, Porter’s chief of staff, on Aug. 10 at 4:31 p.m. “I believe you guys need to add your 'about [Railroad Commission]' language in the first paragraph as I know you would say it differently."
“Just spoke with him about it, and he’s ok sending it,” Troxclair responded two days later, referring to Porter.
Stegall followed up a day later: “I was asked if you guys could put your letterhead on it and sign it and return to me electronically, our DC guys can add it to the docket for you. Does this work? Thanks man.”
“It’s attached!” Troxclair responded on Aug. 14 at 10:06 a.m.
“As promised, the letter has been filed and is available here,” Stegall wrote four days later, providing a link to the document on the FCC website. “Thanks again for the help!”
The FCC's looming decision on Maritime isn't exactly a hot-button issue for everyday Texans. And Porter and industry officials say asking federal regulators to approve the oil and gas companies’ bids to tap wireless frequencies would make pipelines safer, rather than just benefitting the companies’ business interests.
But critics called Porter’s ghost-written letter evidence of his agency’s coziness with the companies it regulates — and an affront to transparency.
“It is just inappropriate,” said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. “That kind of decision and that kind of policy recommendation ought to be made after a hearing and full briefing on the issue.”
Troxclair did not answer questions about whether Porter commonly adds his name to letters written by company representatives, but he said the chairman's decision to rebrand Enbridge’s words reflected his commitment to pipeline safety.
“After learning of the issue, discussing it with pipeline safety personnel and fully vetting the language in the letter, Chairman Porter determined that sending the letter was in the best interest of pipeline safety in Texas,” Troxclair said in an email.
An Enbridge spokesman also declined to comment on how often the company submits letters on behalf of public officials.
“Chairman Porter’s support for industry’s request to the FCC for additional frequencies signifies the importance of operating pipelines safely in Texas,” Michael Barnes, the spokesman, said. “Having additional channels allows [monitoring] equipment to work more efficiently thereby supporting the safe and reliable transportation of oil and natural gas products.”
That an industry group would help craft official state correspondence is no surprise, but it’s rarely so clearly documented.
In February, state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, faced backlash from the Texas horse racing industry after drafting — with at least some help from a law firm that represents an out-of-state casino chain — a letter blasting a proposal to allow betting on “historical racing” in Texas. (Critics in the horse racing industry argued that out-of-state casinos sought to undercut homegrown competition.)
As for the railroad commissioners, questions frequently arise about how they can effectively regulate energy companies that often fund their political bids.
Enbridge has not donated directly to Porter's campaign, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings, but the oil and gas industry at large represents a large share of his contributions.
On Aug. 19, Stegall emailed Troxclair a news report on Porter’s letter. It was published by TR Daily, a telecommunications news outlet that the Enbridge employee described as “highly read by FCC staff.”
“Your letter, along with the publicity it has garnered, has helped the industry position greatly,” Stegall wrote. “Give me a call when you can as I would like to add a little more info.”
The matter is still pending before the FCC.
“We urge the Commission to recognize the critical role” of the wireless technology “in promoting public safety goals in the pipeline industry,” Porter's ghost-written letter states.