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Legislature passes much-criticized bill reforming oil and gas regulatory agency

A Democratic senator on Tuesday made a last-ditch effort to beef up a bill aimed at reforming and reauthorizing the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency — legislation environmental groups and watchdogs have decried as toothless.

Texas Railroad Commissioners Christi Craddick, Ryan Sitton and David Porter wait for their turn to testify before the Sunset Advisory Commission on Aug. 22, 2016.

A Democratic senator on Tuesday made a last-ditch effort to beef up a bill aimed at reforming and reauthorizing the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency — legislation environmental groups and watchdogs have decried as toothless.

Over objections from the Republican senator sponsoring House Bill 1818 in the upper chamber, Sen. José Rodríguez sought to amend the bill to require the Texas Railroad Commission to develop a searchable online database of violations by oil and gas companies and complaints against them, along with inspection reports and enforcement actions taken by the agency.

Those recommendations are contained in another bill Rodríguez filed, Senate Bill 568, which the Senate Natural Resources Committee approved last month on a 6-2 vote.

“This is about transparency,” the El Paso Democrat said Tuesday, standing with a microphone in his hand on the Senate floor.

But Sen. Van Taylor of Plano said it would be too expensive to implement Rodriguez's amendment and noted that Rodríguez's other bill wasn’t yet dead and could still be brought up for consideration in the Senate if there are enough votes. He urged the Senate to reject Rodriguez’s amendment, which it did in a party-line vote.

Ultimately, the Senate approved the legislation on a 29-2 vote. It will now go to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has 10 days to sign or veto it, or let it become law without a signature.

Responding to Taylor's contention that his proposal would be too expensive to implement, Rodríguez posted a tweet later Tuesday noting that the Railroad Commission is poised to get an extra $3 million for technology upgrades.

HB 1818 requires the agency to make several changes to the way it operates, but environmental and watchdog groups say it won’t do much to overhaul an agency known for its outdated name and coziness with the industry it regulates.

“This is a very modest bill that barely counts as reform," Cyrus Reed, director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, said in a statement after the bill passed the House in late March, adding that "There is some good in the bill on tracking enforcement practices, requiring a strategic plan and improving pipeline safety."

(During the House's debate over the legislation, social conservatives unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to include controversial bathroom and immigration legislation.) 

HB 1818 is the byproduct of a review by the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies. Commission staff had to scrutinize the Railroad Commission three different times after the Legislature failed to pass reform bills amid opposition from industry groups and the three elected commissioners who oversee the agency.

Sunset staff recommended a variety of major reforms last year. But in November, the commission — consisting of 10 state lawmakers and two members of the public — snubbed almost all of the recommendations that industry groups opposed. Among them: changing the agency's name to the “Texas Energy Resources Commission” so the public would have a better idea of what the 125-year-old agency actually does.

Several lawmakers have filed stand-alone bills containing that and some of the other more controversial reforms, but few if any of them have hope of passing.

The vote on HB 1818 came the day after the release of a report by the Sierra Club and watchdog groups Texans for Public Justice and Public Citizen showing that the energy and natural resources industry contributed the second most to state legislative campaigns of any industry behind lawyers and lobbyists. Current Texas lawmakers took $11.3 million from the oil and gas industry over the past two election cycles, the report found.

It was a follow-up to another study by the groups that found that an estimated 60 percent of campaign contributions made to the three elected commissioners who oversee the Railroad Commission came from the oil and gas industry that they regulate.

"Ensuring regulatory certainty for our booming energy sector by completing the Sunset process has been one of my top priorities, both as a candidate and now as a Railroad Commissioner. I appreciate the Legislature's hard work on this important legislation," Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian said in a written statement.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Immigration and bathrooms took over a good chunk of a floor debate on whether to keep the Texas Railroad Commission functioning until 2029. In the end lawmakers voted unanimously to tentatively send the bill to the Senate. 
  • The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission snubbed several recommendations meant to enhance the Railroad Commission of Texas' efficiency and environmental regulatory functions. 

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