How Two Texas Regulatory Agencies Have Embraced Industry Interests Over Citizen Concerns and Public Health
By Dave Cortez and Dewayne QuertermousThis feature was written following two hours of public testimony at an Arlington, Texas town hall regarding the Sunset Review of the Public Utilities Commission and Railroad Commission of Texas – two agencies tasked with regulating electricity, telecommunications, oil, and gas industries, among others. Organized by the Greater Fort Worth & Dallas Sierra Clubs and Public Citizen, the event served as a citizen’s communication forum for North Texans to speak directly to State Representatives Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) and Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas). We thank both of them for their participation. To submit comments directly to the Sunset Advisory Commission, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week, more than 80 concerned citizens gathered in Arlington to present passionate testimonials about their experiences with two major state regulatory agencies: the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Railroad Commission (RRC). From concerns about the PUC’s failure to implement state renewable energy mandates and the need to develop net-metering rules for solar, to the financing of campaigns for Railroad Commissioner and the RRC’s track record of neglecting citizen concerns over fracking and tar sands pipeline construction, one unmistakable theme repeated throughout the night was that they are tired of these agencies operating largely by and for polluting industry interests, and not for the public good.
On December 19th, many of these same North Texans will be joining with other concerned citizens from around the state to relay their personal stories of struggle and frustration with the PUC and RRC directly to members of the Sunset Advisory Commission – a 12 member legislative body tasked with the 12 year review to determine the need for an agency, looks for potential duplication of other public services or programs, and considers new and innovative changes to improve each agency’s operations and activities.
RULE 37 , EMINENT DOMAIN, AND
Avoiding RENEWABLE ENERGY
Of the more than forty speakers, many criticized the RRC’s lax regulation of the oil and gas industry, especially regarding fracking for natural gas and oil. While there was praise for the Fracking Fluid Disclosure Bill passed in the 82nd legislative session, and the RRC’s quick implementation of the law, as well as a few other fracking related regulations the Commission has strengthened, any positive recognition was always followed by a litany of air, water, public health, and safety concerns.
The Commission’s willingness to let industry have virtually free reign to frequently use the Rule 37 exemption, allowing them to take a mineral owner’s minerals without a lease and with little if any remuneration, came up often throughout the night. A common sore point was that Rule 37 hearings are not held locally but in Austin, forcing landowners to travel to Austin for a hearing that may be rescheduled at the last moment in order to protest what is usually a rubber-stamp approval for the industry.
Numerous speakers were frustrated by pipeline companies’ abuse of their eminent domain powers, which they get by simply checking a box on a form saying they are a ‘common carrier’. A sustained stream of outraged speakers cited concerns that the RRC does nothing to confirm the veracity of this statement, much less set any criteria for what constitutes a ‘common carrier’, whether associated with gas and oil drilling or with tar sands pipelines. The fact that once they receive ‘common carrier’ status, virtually no limits are placed on the use of eminent domain by a private company, left many incredulous.
“There’s no box to mark or delineate tar sands on the T4 form at the RRC. Tar sands is unlike conventional crude, Syncrude, or Venezuelan crude,” said event organizer Rita Beving. “These tar sands companies get a federal IRS exemption as they have determined with the IRS that dilbit or tar sands is not crude, and therefore are exempt from paying into the U.S. spill liability fund. Still this company marks their T-4 at the RRC that they are “crude”. What is Texas to do should there be a spill? Who is going to bear the liability? The counties? The state?”
The PUC was not spared by the wave of criticism from speakers. In reference to a petition filed by the Sierra Club and Public Citizen in September, citizens wanted to know why the PUC has maintained a 7-year position that the implementation of a 500 megawatt renewable energy mandate would harm Texas electricity consumers, when many saw it as an efficient means to achieve energy independence and create jobs.
“The recent denial to hold public meetings for a petition to act on the non-wind RPS, and in documentation on a commission website that compares the capital cost of a natural gas plant to the total cost of a solar PV plant and then declares solar too expensive indicates a bias that needs to be removed or an analysis that needs to be improved,” said Larry Howe of Plano.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AND CAMPAIGN COFFERS
Although audience members expressed their frustrations with the PUC’s deference to industry lobbyists and utility stakeholders, the fact of the matter is members of the PUC are unelected and therefore lack sufficient means for public accountability. The 3 commissioners are appointed by Governor Perry – who ironically enough signed Senate Bill 20 into law in 2005, which established a mandate for 500 mws of “non-wind” renewable energy such as solar and geothermal power.
But commissioners at the RRC are publicly elected. Members of Clean Elections Texas were on hand to present testimony highlighting the need to reform the system of financing campaigns for seats at the RRC.
“It isn’t just that 1) there’s been an explosion of campaign spending in RRC races in the last ten years, 2) that most of the money comes from people in industries with business before the commission, 3) that commission candidates raise significantly more than candidates for comparable agencies, 4) that there is no limit to how much any single interested party can give to a commissioner, or 5) that most of the high dollar contributions come from individuals in regulated industries…it’s that some of the campaign contributions simply cannot be explained as an effort to affect the outcome of an election,” said Joel Page of Clean Elections Texas.
Further analysis and review of testimony shows that the volume and source of money flowing into campaigns for the RRC – as documented by a 2010 study by Public Citizen – suggests an effort to buy influence over the Commission. Between 2000 and 2010, money raised and spent by incumbent commissioners increased nearly seven fold; in the 2008 cycle, incumbents spent more than 3.5 million dollars. The amount spent by industry sources – energy companies, their employees, as well as consultants, attorneys and lobbyists – has steadily increased as well.
Problem is: campaign finance reports show that much of the money raised by candidates for RRC goes unspent. This begs the question, “why would donors give candidates more money than they need to run a campaign that receives relatively little public attention?”
IMPLEMENTING REFORM AND
MOVING TOWARD A CLEAN ECONOMY
There’s no doubt that Texas is an oil & gas state. While our economy is rooted in the days of Spindletop and wildcatting for Texas crude, there’s no reason assume that clean air and water are mutually exclusive to economic and energy development. Texans are proud of our rights to personal property, our independence, and the idea that we can lead in more than low-wage jobs and carbon pollution.
But when our appointed and elected leadership at the PUC and RRC fails to listen to legitimate grievances from of its own citizens, to respect state law, to protect private property rights, to prioritize transparency & accountability, and to tap into the most abundant renewable energy resource in the nation (the Texas sun), prudence dictactes a greater and more vocal response from the people whom these agencies are tasked to represent and protect.
Send in your comments to the Sunset Advisory Commission, and your State Senator and Representative. Want to build a local clean economy team in your area? Get started by taking 5 minutes to complete this short survey.
There’s no more compelling case for action and reform than your personal story. However, if you’d like to review talking points and more details of the Sierra Club’s and Public Citizen’s comments on the PUC Sunset Review click here. For talking points and more detail on the Sierra Club’s comments on the RRC Sunset Review click here.