Skip to main content

Analysis: When "We" Doesn't Include You

When you read a letter from Texas Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter, there is a chance he wrote it. And there is a chance it was written by someone in the oil and gas industry he's supposed to be regulating.

Lead image for this article

What happens when an elected official says “we” is that we think they’re talking about us — the people who elected them. Sometimes, that’s right. In fact, it’s right most of the time.

Not at the Texas Railroad Commission. It’s a three-person state commission elected by Texas voters and seemingly owned and operated by the oil and gas industry it regulates. Go hear one of their speeches at an industry conference sometime and listen for this: Do they call it “your industry” when talking to oil and gas people, or do they call it “our industry.” A recent sampling suggests the latter.

The latest chapter in the remarkably consistent history of the Railroad Commission is about a letter from Chairman David Porter to the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC is suffering from a case of regulatory constipation, as reported by The Texas Tribune’s Jim Malewitz, that is blocking some oil and gas companies from getting their hands on some wireless frequencies that would help them monitor their pipelines.

The companies want the FCC to free the frequencies, which are licensed to an unrelated outfit that has encountered bankruptcy and other legal challenges.

One of them wrote a letter and got Porter to put it on Railroad Commission of Texas letterhead and sign it himself.

This is all documented in emails, which are surely the greatest thing ever invented for lawyers and others who want to piece a story together after the fact.

Porter’s chief of staff, Caleb Troxclair, traded messages last month with Justin Stegall, a Houston intermediary for Enbridge, one of the companies hoping to get its hands on those wireless frequencies. The company’s Washington, D.C., lawyers drafted a letter that he forwarded to Porter’s office with some suggestions about adding some language of their own.

Troxclair wrote back a couple of days later, saying Porter had agreed to send it. Two days later, he sent along a version on state letterhead that was added to the FCC’s files by the lawyers in Washington.

None of this cost taxpayers much money. There was a little staff time involved, but it’s not like anyone on the state payroll had to write his or her own letter or anything.

It also is not the sort of request that has much effect on anyone but the companies involved. If they get the radio frequencies they want, they can save some money monitoring their pipelines and perhaps even speed up their responses if something goes wrong.

A competent public relations professional could probably make it sound like a small miracle of efficiency and environmental responsibility. Troxclair made a stab at that responding to the original story, saying “Chairman Porter determined that sending the letter was in the best interest of pipeline safety in Texas.”

Pipeline safety was the spin from Enbridge’s spokesman, too. Message discipline is important, and these guys are on the same page.

This does not appear to be a tit-for-tat thing. Enbridge hasn’t contributed to Porter.

But it does seem like a regulator would want the companies that stand to benefit to write their own letters and put their own names on them and print them under their own company letterheads, instead of enlisting the help of a provincial government official who might win some attention in Washington by flashing the state seal.

Come to think of it, this could increase Porter’s own suspicions about letters sent to the Railroad Commission from mayors, county commissioners and other local officials. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish logrolling from heartfelt testimonials, cheapening the regulatory process.

Porter is not doing anything illegal or even unusual, and that’s the trouble. He’s just helping his constituents — the oil and gas people. That's who Texas Railroad Commissioners talk about when they use the word “we.”

Support public-service journalism that gets the context right

Yes, I'll donate today