The Texas legislative session recently ended without any major reforms of the Texas Railroad Commission. Bills to reform the Commission failed in the previous two legislative sessions, after Sunset Commission reports recommending significant changes in the structure of the RRC. This session, the Legislature had no heart for tackling those reforms and instead gave the RRC renewed life through September 1, 2029.
The bill authorizing continuance of the RRC, HB 1818, includes a provision requiring the RRC to track its oil and gas monitoring and enforcement activities and publish an annual report on its website. But a bill (HB 247 by Anchia) to require the RRC to publish on its website details of violations and enforcement actions by operators, searchable by county, operator and well, failed to pass. As did a bill to change the RRC’s name to the Texas Energy Commission. Another bill by Anchia, HB 464, restricting the time periods when Commissioners could accept political contributions and prohibiting contributions by companies with contested cases before the RRC, also died. HB 567, which would have increased penalties for operator violations of RRC rules and required the RRC to allow public input on its penalty guidelines, failed to get out of committee.
The Legislature’s budget bill includes an appropriation of $38.2 million from the state’s rainy day fund for plugging of orphaned oil and gas wells. The RRC website lists more than 5800 orphaned wells in Texas – wells for which no operator can be found who can be made responsible for plugging the well.
The Sunset Advisory Commission will meet November 10 to vote on its recommendations to the Texas legislature for legislation to continue the Railroad Commission for another 12 years. Committee members have proposed modifications to several of the staff report, and also add several additional recommendations. The staff recommendations and proposed modifications submitted by Commission members can be viewed here. Decision Meeting Material_November Proposed changes/additions of interest to land and mineral owners include:
- Chairman Gonzales and Representative Flynn propose to eliminate recommendation that the Commission’s name be changed to a name that reflects the agency’s functions.
- From Representative Raymond:
The rights of local municipalities to regulate or ban drilling activity within their jurisdictions has been a hot topic over the last few years in several states, especially Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado. Shale development has been intense in all three states, but their reactions to urban drilling regulation have differed markedly.
In Colorado, voters threatened to force a ballot initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing in the state. In response, the governor cobbled together a compromise that included the appointment of a task force to examine the impact of drilling on urban environments and make recommendations. That task force, the Colorado Oil and Gas Task Force, issued nine recommendations in February of this year. They make for interesting reading.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has been conducting hearings across the state on two of the Task Force recommendations, both of which would require the COGCC to implement regulations. Both of the recommendations would increase municipalities’ participation in the permitting process for wells within their jurisdictions. Recommendation #17 would require companies planning “Large Scale Oil and Gas Facilities” to consult with local governments to try to reach agreement on the siting of those facilities and to engage in mediation if the parties are unable to reach agreement. Recommendation #20 would require companies to provide local governments a five-year plan for their drilling and development within their jurisdictions, to allow the municipalities to include those plans in the municipalities’ own long-range plans.
Representative Drew Darby, Chair of the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources, wrote the members of the committee to ask their input on issues that should be addressed by the committee during the interim between legislative sessions. A copy of the letter can be viewed here: Darby letter.
Of the 33 energy-related bills referred to the committee, it reported 22 favorably, nine were passed by the legislature, and two of those were vetoed by the governor – so seven became law. They are described in Darby’s letter.
Darby mentions two issues he believes should be suggested to the Speaker of the House as “Interim Charges” for the committee to study: allocation wells and oil equipment theft. The legislature passed House Bill 3291, which would have increased penalties for oil-field theft, but the governor vetoed it, declaring it “overly broad.” Darby also reminds the committee that the Texas Sunset Commission will be reviewing the Texas Railroad Commission during the interim, and he expects the Sunset report to be a “significant focus of the Committee next session.”
The Texas legislative session has now ended. I followed 44 bills identified as potentially affecting the interests of mineral owners. Only two of those bills passed.
The bill that produced the most controversy was HB 40, introduced by Rep. Darby, chair of the House Energy Resources Committee. It restricts the ability of municipalities to regulate oil and gas operations within their jurisdictions. This bill and several other bills were introduced in response to the referendum passed by the City of Denton barring hydraulic fracturing. The bill allows cities to adopt ordinances related to oil and gas activity only if the ordinance regulates “aboveground activity … at or above the surface of the ground, including … fire and emergency response, traffic, lights, or noise, or imposing notice or reasonable setback requirements,” is “commercially reasonable,” and “does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation conducted by a reasonably prudent operator.” The bill defines “commercially reasonable” as:
a condition that would allow a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas, as determined based on the objective standard of a reasonably prudent operator and not on an individualized assessment of an actual operator’s capacity to act.
Last month I wrote about the Texas legislature’s efforts to limit cities’ authority to regulate drilling within their jurisdictions, after the City of Denton passed a ban on hydraulic fracturing. The bill that has emerged is House Bill 40, sponsored by Drew Darby, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee. It passed out of committee, but yesterday was returned to committee on a technicality. A companion bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 1165, has also passed out of its Natural Resources committee.
The bill would greatly limit cities’ ability to regulate drilling. It provides that cities may only regulate “aboveground activity related to an oil and gas operation that occurs at or above the surface of the ground, including a regulation governing fire and emergency response, traffic, lights, or noise, or imposing notice or reasonable setback requirements.” Any ordinance must be “commercially reasonable,” defined as “a condition that would allow a reasonably prudent operator to produce, process and transport oil and gas, as determined based on the objective standard of a reasonably prudent operator and not on an individualized assessment of an actual operator’s capacity to act.”
The bill leaves may questions unanswered. For example, Fort Worth has an ordinance that regulates saltwater pipelines. Are pipelines an “aboveground activity” that cities can regulate?
Struggles over fracking bans have been in the news for some time in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, New Mexico and other states. The State of New York has had a moratorium on fracking for several years. But until recently, cities and oil and gas companies in Texas had been able to get along. Until, that is, the City of Denton, Texas passed a referendum banning fracking with in its city limits. Since then, as we say in Texas, all hell has broken loose.
The day after Denton’s referendum passed, two suits were filed challenging its ordinance, one by the Texas General Land Office and one by the Texas Oil and Gas Association. In the Legislature, several bills were filed to limit municipal authority to regulate drilling. One bill would require cities to reimburse the state for lost revenue from any drilling ban. Another would require cities to get approval from the Attorney General before putting any referendum on the ballot.
The two bills that appear to have the most legs are HB 2855, introduced by Drew Darby, and SB 1165, introduced by Troy Fraser. SB 1165 has been favorably reported out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. HB 2855 remains pending in the House Energy Resources Committee after a lengthy hearing at which representatives of the industry and municipalities testified late into the night.
Here are bills filed in the current Texas Legislative session that may be of interest to mineral owners:
House Bill 539: This is the bill to prohibit municipalities from banning drilling within their jurisdictions.
Senate Bill 540: The Senate’s version of House Bill 539.
Colleen Schreiber has written an excellent article in the June 13 edition of Livestock Weekly, “Landowners Hold Off Oil and Gas Lobby on Common Carrier Bills,” describing the blow-by-blow negotiations and lobbying in the pipeline industry’s efforts to “solve” the problems created by the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Tex. Rice Land Partners, Ltd. v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Tex., LLC, 363 S.W.3d 192, 198 (Tex. 2012).
Lined up on one side: pipeline lobbyists supporting bills by Rep. Tryon Lewis, R. Odessa, in the House, and Robert Duncan, R. Lubbock, in the Senate, including the powerful Koch brothers, owners of Koch Enterprises.
On the other side: Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Land and Mineral Owners’ Association, the Bass family, and plaintiffs’ lawyers.