Sunset Advisory Commission Issues Report on Texas Railroad Commission


November 17, 2012

Texas' Sunset Advisory Commission has issued its recommendations for changes at the Texas Railroad Commission. The report can be found here.

The RRC was up for regular Sunset review in 2010, and the Sunset Commission issued a report recommending several changes then, including abolishing the three-member elected Commission and replacing it with a single appointed Commissioner. Largely due to debate over that recommendation, most of the Sunset Commission's 2010 recommendations were not enacted, and the Legislature told the Sunset Commission to issue a new report for its 2012 legislative session.

In its current report the Sunset Commission no longer recommends replacing the three elected Commissioners. It recommends changing the Commission's name to the Texas Energy Resources Commission; limiting the time when Commissioners can solicit campaign contributions and prohibiting a Commissioner from accepting contributions from any party with a contested case before the Commission; requiring a Commissioner running for another elected office to resign; and requiring the Commission to adopt a recusal policy rule.

Other proposed changes in the current report of interest to mineral owners include:

- removing the $20 million cap on the Oil and Gas Regulation Cleanup Fund, used to plug "orphaned" wells in Texas. There are an estimated 7,400 orphaned wells that remain unplugged. In fiscal 2012 the RRC plugged 764 orphaned wells.

- giving the RRC authority to impose a pipeline permit fee and to regulate the safety of interstate pipelines.

- requiring the RRC to develop an enforcement policy and penalty guidelines for oil and gas-related violations.

- requiring contested cases to be heard by administrative law judges at the State Office of Administrative Hearings, rather than by examiners who are members of the RRC staff.

In its discussion of the RRC's enforcement policy, the Sunset Commission reports that, since its 2010 Sunset review, the RRC has added 10 new full-time field inspectors (it now has 97 full-time inspectors and 55 additional staff that dedicate part of their time to field inspections). In fiscal 2012 the RRC conducted more than 118,000 inspections and found more than 55,000 violations; it issued 217 penalties and assessed more than $1.9 million in fines. The RRC also uses lease severance - revoking an operator's permit to sell production from a lease - as a method of enforcement. The RRC reported that the RRC issued 11,589 severance notices in fiscal 2012. In 63% of those cases where the RRC sent an operator a notice of severance, the violations were corrected after receiving the notice and an additional 22% of violations were corrected after the lease was severed; the remaining 15% were referred for enforcement action. The Sunset Commission notes that the RRC has adopted penalty guidelines by a new rule that assigns penalties based on the risk posed, the severity of the violation, and instances of repeat violations; and that the RRC is in the process of revising and "field testing" changes to its enforcement policies, requiring field personnel to refer all "major" violations for enforcement action even if the operator comes into compliance after the violation is found. The report says that "recent trend data does suggest an increase in the number of cases referred for enforcement." But the report notes that only 2% of the 55,000 violations were referred for enforcement in fiscal 2012. The report recommends that the Legislature require the RRC by statute to develop an overall enforcement policy that includes criteria for classifying violations and standards for which type of violations to forward for enforcement action.

I continue to believe that responsibility for enforcement of environmental laws related to the oil and gas industry should not reside in the same agency that enforces drilling and spacing regulations and is responsible for promoting development of oil and gas in the State. Moving contested cases to SOAH may help.

The RRC's reputation for enforcement was not helped by a recent report by StateImpact Texas of violations by a commercial disposal facility near Beaumont owned by Pemco Services . The Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, run out of the Travis County District Attorney's office, recently won a criminal conviction and a $1.35 million fine against Pemco for violation of its permit to dispose of drilling fluid by "landfarming". The facility was permitted by the RRC, but the RRC failed to require Pemco to comply with its permits for several years, according to the article. ""For over a decade the company was out of compliance with their permit and there was little done to regulate them," said Patricia Robertson, the task force's environmental crimes prosecutor." Pemco was pumping  unauthorized stormwater from the landfarm into Peveto Bayou, in voilation of the permit. The prosecutors alleged that, from 2002 to 2009, nearly 57 million gallons of drilling fluids were deposited on the landfarm in voilation of the permit, yet the RRC failed to take any enforcement action. RRC spokesperson Ramona Nye responded to a reporter's request for comment, saying that the RRC "tries to get voluntary compliance to correct violations 'before enforcement action is sought.'" Nye said that the RRC decided not to take enforcement action "as long as Pemco complied with Commission directives to stop accepting waste at the facility and to take actions necessary to close this site." Based on this report, it appears that the RRC still has work to do on its enforcement policy.