Why one organization is calling for a renaming of the Texas Railroad Commission

Commission Shift says the state’s oil and gas regulator needs a name that more closely reflects the agency’s functions.

By Alexandra HartJanuary 11, 2023 1:27 pm, ,

The Texas Railroad Commission is a highly influential regulatory body, overseeing much of how the state’s energy industry does its work. One thing it doesn’t regulate is, well, railroads. And hasn’t in years.

Because of that, a new organization called Commission Shift is pushing for a renaming of the commission this legislative session. Virginia Palacios, the nonprofit’s executive director, spoke with the Standard about what she says are issues with the government agency. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Why was Commission Shift founded? What’s your mission?

Virginia Palacios: I started Commission Shift because I felt like there was this big gap in the environmental movement in Texas. We had been working so hard on different roles, but there was always a sentiment that we couldn’t really get anywhere at the Railroad Commission because there was this understanding that the commissioners have personal financial interests in the same companies that they’re supposed to be overseeing.

Well, what’s in a name? I mean, it’s called the “Texas Railroad Commission,” but most Texans, at least people who seem to be focused on politics, they know what the Texas Railroad Commission is, right?

No, that’s not true at all. In fact, polling from the University of Texas has shown that the vast majority of voters in Texas have no idea what the Railroad Commission does. And so the reason why this is important is because this state agency is elected, not appointed, like most state agencies. And so when people show up to the polls to vote for the railroad commissioner, they need to know that they’re voting about the state’s most important energy agency and that it has nothing to do with trains or railroads.

Well, going back to 2013 and 2015, it seems like the Sunset Advisory Commission agreed with you. They suggested a name change for the very same reason – transparency. Lawmakers didn’t act on that. Why has the name stuck around for so long? 

Well, some people say that it’s because of tradition, but we’ve also heard some pretty bad reasons for why the name has stayed the same. One was that it would cost too much to change the stationery. Another was that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t know who we are. And so those are just not good reasons. If we really care about democracy and transparency, then voters have a right to know what this agency does.

Well, if not the “Texas Railroad Commission,” what would you recommend as a better name and why?

Most other states have an oil and gas regulatory body that is called an “Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.” In some other states, they throw in the word “minerals” to the name. So we would recommend the “Texas Oil, Gas and Minerals Commission.”

I think in some places oil and gas comes under public utilities. We have a Public Utility Commission, do we not?

We do have a Public Utility Commission. And in most other states, the Public Utility Commission is responsible for overseeing gas utility service in the state, but not in Texas. In Texas, the Railroad Commission oversees gas utility service.

I guess one of the arguments could be that, because of the nature and size scale of the oil and gas industry in Texas, we need a commission dedicated to that task.

Right. And so Texas produces more oil and gas than any other state in the country. If we were our own country, we would be ranked fourth for crude oil production. And so Texas is an extremely important place for oil and gas production globally. And, you know, we also produce more greenhouse gas emissions than any other state in the country.

Well, so what are you asking the legislative session to accomplish in this new session? I mean, what exactly do you want lawmakers to do?

Well, we’re hoping that lawmakers will choose to give the voters and the people of Texas more leverage than a few big corporate entities. And so we are asking for the legislature to reduce the amount of time that railroad commissioners can fundraise so that they’re not fundraising during key decision making moments throughout their entire six-year term. We’re also asking to cap the total value of any campaign contribution that an individual can make to a railroad commissioner’s campaign. And just generally to limit the amount of corporate influence in these campaigns.

Are lawmakers more inclined to do so this session than they would would have been in previous recent sessions? 

You know, we are going to certainly try to put on the heat this session. And I think the difference is that we just went through a major natural disaster back in 2021. And it seems clear that the Railroad Commission was not always acting in good faith. And part of that is related to these campaign contributions that we see and these financial interests that we see. And so I think it’s hard to separate the kinds of outcomes, the kinds of devastating outcomes that we’re seeing in the state from those relationships and those conflicts of interest. And so I would hope that legislators would make the right decision and try to reduce the kinds of biased decision making that we might be seeing at the commission.

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