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Archive for March 10th, 2011

The long-awaited Sunset Bill of the Railroad Commission was released late yesterday, and it’s mostly what we’d expected, but not everything we’d hoped for.

Highlights:

  • The Railroad Commission will be renamed the Texas Oil and Gas Commission
  • It will be headed by one commissioner  (down from 3) who will be elected every four years on the same cycle as Governor, Comptrollerm, Ag Commissioner, etc.
  • Campaign finance reform: Commissioners and candidates for the commission can only raise money one year before an election and 30 days after.
  • Moving contested hearings to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).

These are needed reforms and the problems they attempt to correct are huge. For instance, the large influence campaign money has in the election of the Railroad Commission historically, as detailed in our report Drilling for Dollars. Among our findings was that nearly half of all campaign donations were being solicited and received in non-election years. Creating this fund-raising window will help keep at least the appearance of impropriety away from the new Oil and Gas Commissioner for at least 3 out of every 4 years, though we’re fairly certain the money will gush in all the same. This is why we proposed public financing for this important new office, but barring that, at least better disclosure of who is giving the money (specifically the occupation and employer of donors) and putting a cap on how much someone can give.

Unfortunately, this bill also does not offer any new guidance on regulation of fracking and natural gas drilling. Currently fracking regulation is in somewhat of a no man’s land, as Railroad Commission says they do not enforce our environmental laws, but TCEQ says they don’t regulate the operations of drillers. While it’s possible some of these reforms will come from the TCEQ sunset or from separate legislation, the bottom line is that we cannot allow our agencies to play hot potato with this issue.

So, what does this mean that we would get one new oil and gas commissioner from three current railroad commissioners? If passed in its current form, the railroad commission would be abolished- the railroad commissioners would be out of a job. Not a big deal for those like Michael Williams, who has said he will resign next month in order to pursue a run for Senate. Elizabeth Ames Jones has hinted she would do the same.  Upon creation of the new Oil and Gas Commission, the first commissioner would be appointed by Governor Perry, but s/he would only serve until 2012, when the first Oil and Gas Commissioner race in the history of Texas would take place. Whoever wins that race would serve for only two years, then be up for re-election in 2014, and then elections would take place every four years after that.

This is many steps forward from where we began, and we’re grateful that both the Sunset Commission staff and Committee members listened to our (the environmental and good government community’s) thoughtful proposals and adopted some of them into this reform package. It’s a testament to the power of people showing up and making their voices heard. But this is the beginning, not the end. So in the spirit of making our voices heard, please remember to join us Tuesday for ACT Lobby Day. This will be an opportunity for you and us to ask for even more needed reforms both at RRC and TCEQ.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

 

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Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy)

Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) filed a bill (SB 655) to abolish the Texas Railroad Commission and eliminate the three statewide elected positions that govern it and rename the agency the Texas Oil and Gas Commission to be run by a single elected officer who would serve a four-year term.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Government Organization Committee.

The Railroad Commission, a 121-year-old agency whose mission has changed dramatically over its lifespan, and which many have said has grown unwieldly and ineffective, has three elected commissioners who, with their separate staffs, often stumble over one another.  Still, whether a single commissioner would be preferable to three is likely to be the most contentious piece of energy-related Sunset legislation that lawmakers take up this session and even the three sitting commissioners are split on how the agency should be structured.

Hegar’s bill also contains language that would have the newly restructured agency adopt the model of the State Office of Hearing Examiners (SOAH) on rulemaking dispute-resolution matters. It also calls for establishing a $20 million oilfield cleanup fund to be financed by fees from various industry activities.

To see the Railroad Commission Sunset bill, click here.

Senator Joan Huffman (R-Southside Place)

Representative Wayne Smith (R-Baytown)

Meanwhile, Senator Joan Huffman (R-Southside Place/Houston) co-filed the Sunset bill (SB 657) to reauthorize the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy).  A companion bill was filed in the house (HB 2694) by Representative Wayne Smith (R-Baytown).

All of these legislators are from areas of Texas whose air quality is highly impacted by the decisions of the TCEQ and dominated by the oil and gas industry. 

To see the TCEQ bill SB 657, click here.  If you also want to follow the House companion bill HB 2694, click here.

Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) said he plans to introduce the legislation affecting the Public Utility Commission and related agencies before the bill-filing deadline.

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The House Business and Industry Committee will meet next Monday and one of the bills that they will be taking testimony on is HB 450 filed by Representative Eddie Lucio, III (D-San Benito) that addresses the regulation of solar energy devices by a property owners’ association.  If you are a homeowner who wants solar but your HOA rules prohibit the installation of solar panels, and you live in the district of one of the committee members, you might want to call your representative and let them know that you support this bill. 

Feeling really passionate about this and plan on being in Austin next Monday – stop by the capitol after 2pm, go to the hearing room-E2.016 and sign up to testify for this bill.

Below is a list of the House Business and Industry committee members and their capitol office phone numbers.

House Business and Industry

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The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) will hear oral argument relating to the Victoria County Station Early Site Permit (ESP) proceeding on March 16-17 in Victoria, Texas.

The ASLB is the independent body within the NRC that presides over hearings where the public can challenge proposed licensing and enforcement actions.

Oral arguments will begin at 9 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, March 16, in the Theatre Victoria at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts, 214 N. Main St. in Victoria. The session will continue at 9 a.m. CDT on March 17. The session is open for public observation, but participation will be limited to authorized representatives of the groups taking part in the proceeding (Texans for a Sound Energy Policy [TSEP], the applicant – Exelon Nuclear Texas Holdings – and NRC staff involved in the proceeding).

Early arrival is suggested to allow for security screening for all members of the public interested in attending. NRC policy prohibits signs, banners, posters or displays in the hearing room.

Exelon submitted an ESP application March 25, 2010, seeking approval of the Victoria County Station site, which is approximately 13 miles south of Victoria. The ASLB is considering whether to grant TSEP intervenor status. The group has submitted several objections, or contentions, challenging Exelon’s application. The ASLB will hear oral argument on whether TSEP’s contentions meet the NRC’s requirements to be admitted for hearing under the NRC’s jurisdiction.

Documents related to the Victoria County Station ESP application are available on the NRC Web site at: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/esp/victoria.html .

Documents pertaining to the ASLB proceeding are available in the agency’s electronic hearing docket at: http://ehd1.nrc.gov/EHD .

More information about the ASLB can be found at: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/organization/aslbpfuncdesc.html.

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