The session is over, and the Texas legislature has failed once again to pass sunset legislation for the Texas Railroad Commission. The legislature instead authorized continuation of the RRC for another four years, with sunset review to be repeated in the 2017 legislative session.
Under Texas sunset act, every state agency must go through a comprehensive review of its functions and performance every twelve years by the Sunset Advisory Commission, a 12-member commission appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House. The RRC underwent sunset review in 2010; the report of the Sunset Advisory Commission at that time criticized the agency for failing to vigorously enforce its rules and assess penalties for rule violations, and recommended structural reforms of the agency, including replacement of the three elected commissioners with a single appointed commissioner. But the legislature failed to pass any legislation recommended by the Commission, instead requiring that sunset review be repeated for its 2013 session.
The 2012 Sunset Commission report no longer recommended replacing the three elected commissioners with an appointed commissioner. Instead, it recommended ethics reforms, including limiting the time when commissioners could solicit campaign contributions and prohibiting commissioners from accepting contributions from any company with a contested case pending before the RRC. It also required a commissioner running for a different elective office to resign from the RRC. The commissioners vigorously opposed these recommendations and the legislation introduced to enact the reforms.
The legislation continuing the RRC does provide that the next sunset review of the RRC must consider how to dismantle the agency and assign its responsibilities to other state agencies if sunset legislation fails to pass again in four years.
Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, author of the interim legislation continuing the RRC, expressed his frustration at the failure of the process: “I don’t see how they can go through a third time — through sunset and no bill passes — and we continue that agency. You just can’t keep doing that. We need to have the opportunity to have a strategic, orderly plan to dismantle the agency if that’s the choice they make. It’s the obvious thing to do.” Bonnen blamed the agency’s commissioners for the failure. “I’ll be candid. All of he commissioners were against any changes for ethics. I think that’s one of our biggest obstacles. The industry’s afraid to agree with the legislators on any policy changes we’re making because they don’t want to offend the Railroad Commissioners. It’s a very bad situation.”
Rep. Bonnen claims that Commissioner Barry Smitherman plans to run for Attorney General in 2014, a claim that Smitherman does not deny or confirm. But Smitherman expressed his relief that the RRC won’t have to go through sunset review for another four years.
Meanwhile, the RRC finally passed its overhaul of oil and gas well construction rules, Statewide Rule 13, a rulemaking that has been in the works for many months. Industry and environmental advocates — in particular the Environmental Defense Fund — worked together on the rule changes, and both expressed satisfication with the result. Scott Anderson, senior policy advisor at EDF, said that “the rule marks a huge turning point in state regulation of the safety and environmental integrity of oil and gas wells. Texas has moved back into the leadership position on regulation of oil and gas well construction. Agencies around the country, including the federal Bureau of Land Management, are likely to learn a lot from studying these rules as well as similar rules adopted last year in Ohio.” But Anderson cautioned that one big improvement is still ndeed. “For reasons we don’t understand, the commission is allowing operators to leave less space around the pipes in the lower parts of wells than experts recommend. Having enough space around these pipes is important in order to get adequate cement jobs, which are needed both for economic reasons and in order to protect the environment. EDF hopes the commission will revisit this issue in the future.”
The new rules don’t become effective until January 1, 2014.