Tag Archives: Railroad Commission

Sierra Club Tells House Energy Resources Committee, “It Ain’t 1983,” Supports HB 3598 to Raise Maximum fines on oil and gas polluters.

For Immediate Release: April 10, 2013

549061_10151518113817920_4140573_nFor More Information: Lone Star Chapter Conservation Director Cyrus Reed – 512-740-4086, cyrus.reed@sierraclub.org

Dressed in his best imitation Don Johnson/Miami Vice white suit, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter Conservation Director Cyrus Reed testified in support of legislation to raise the maximum fines the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) can assess against oil and gas companies violating state laws from the current $10,000 to $25,000 per violation per day.

“The $10,000 maximum was set in 1983, when the Police and Michael Jackson were the two biggest musical acts, and the Ewings out of Dallas were the biggest oil developers in Texas,” Reed told members of the House Committee on Energy Resources. “You should support HB 3598 (Rep. Lon Burnam – Fort Worth) to raise the maximum penalty from $10,000 to $25,000, because $25,000 today essentially equals $10,000 in 1983.”

Reed noted that the Sunset Advisory Commission recommended raising the RRC maximum fines to $25,000 four years ago. The Texas Attorney General, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already have maximum fines of $25,000 per violation per day.

Reed wrapped up his testimony quoting Sting and Michael Jackson, “It is time for the Railroad Commission of Texas to watch ‘every move you make’ and tell companies operating in Texas with egregious regulatory violations to pay the fines, clean up their act or ‘beat it’.”

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Stories From the Frontlines: The Crossroads Between Fracking, Tar Sands, Campaign Finance, and Renewable Energy

How Two Texas Regulatory Agencies Have Embraced Industry Interests Over Citizen Concerns and Public Health

By Dave Cortez and Dewayne Quertermous

This 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 sunset@sunset.state.tx.us
 

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.

(Click here for location, meeting time, and Sierra Club’s comments on the PUC & RRC Sunset Review.)

Keystone 8-24

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.

fracking

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

Wind Solar Worker

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.

Below is a photo essay featuring all of the speakers at the Arlington town hall. Click on photos to see quotes from the testimony given that night.

Sunset Commission Ends with A Whimper, not a Bang.. now the real work begins to reform TCEQ and Railroad Commission

There was the Sunset Reports by Sunset Staff. There were some dozen meetings hosted by the Alliance for Clean Texas in which literally thousands of Texans let their anger be known about our broken environmental and mining agencies. There was a public meeting in December at which, again, hundreds of individuals berated the Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for their general failure to follow the law and bend over backwards for industry. Then there were the 12 members of the Sunset Commission itself, who yesterday voted on their final recommendations. Get ready folks, it is a glass only half full.

Now the votes. First Railroad Commission of Texas. Good news. It will be called the Texas Oil and Gas Commission, which makes a whole lot more sense. More good news. Enforcement and gas rate hearing cases will go to the more independent SOAH – State Office of Administrative Hearings. There will not be three elected Commissioners, but only one statewide elected official, who will only be able to collect money from contributors around election time and if he wants to run for the US Senate? Under the recommendations approved yesterday, he would have to resign to run.

Bad news — the Railroad Commission will still be deciding on rate cases for gas utilities not the Public Utility Commission. Despite indicating he would, Senator Hegar never introduced an amendment to transfer uranium exploratory mining over to TCEQ where it should be.

Worst news — despite the disaster that has been the Barnett Shale, not even a real discussion of additional regulatory tools to clamp down on unfettered oil and gas development. Like what you ask? Well we don’t even have regulations on fracking fluids pipelines  or air emission guidance on the completion of wells or refracking of wells. Some basic steps that could have been taken.

Public Utility Commission did get to sit over water and wastewater rate cases, a big improvement over the TCEQ. But a very reasonable idea by Rep. Rafael Anchia to form a Texas Energy Efficiency Coordinating Council — so that all the government agencies charged with running energy efficiency programs could meet quarterly and share lessons learned — could only muster six aye votes, and six nay votes. Some members just didn’t understand that agencies talking to each other about their programs might save money, not cost additional money. But have no fear, that idea will be separate legislation down the road.

Now the big bad wolf. The TCEQ. The agency that has been repeatedly taken to task for not following the rules. Some good news. Much of the bulk of the Sunset Staff Report was adopted. That includes improvements in compliance history, increasing the caps in penalties so that companies that break the law get hid harder, adopting its enforcement guidance as actual rules so everyone knows how enforcement works, improving the Petroleum Storage Tank program, clarifying the mechanism to fund the Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission so they can do their job.

All of that represents slight improvements for TCEQ but there is bad news as well. They took no action to improve OPIC — the Office of Public Interest Counsel — by either strengthening it or removing it completely to the Office of Public Utility Counsel as many of had recommended. They failed to authorize allowing the TCEQ to move the current cap on emissions fees so the agency would have adequate resources.

And several modest proposals from Rep. Anchia to improve the agency — let’s review them in six years rather than wait another 12, let’s give them specific authority to actually DENY a new permit or permit renewal, let’s put someone with medical or public health experience as one of the commissioners — didn’t even have a fighting chance. One modification that did – making sure the Rad Waste Commission couldn’t implement the rule it just passed opening up Texas to rad waste imports from around the country or even possibly the world – was pulled down by Senator Chuy Hinojosa. Hinojosa explained that he would be working with several other senators to introduce separate legislation that would require any other state that wanted to send us their waste to put up $25 million to cover liability, much as Vermont has done in joining the Texas Compact.

So folks the road for real reform at TCEQ is going to be difficult if the votes yesterday and the rather minor reforms that were approved yesterday are any indication. But honestly it is only the beginning of the road — the bills will be filed. Rumor is that in the House, Rep. Cook and Rep. Bonnen will take the lead on TCEQ and in the Senate, either Sen. Huffman or Sen Hinojosa will be the lead. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get the changes we wanted — but were unable to get in the “Sunset” process in the legislative process.. As Rocky said, “never give up. If you get knocked down, stand up and keep fighting.”

 

 

Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club