Posts Tagged ‘reform’

Ask most people what they think the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) is in charge of and most people will reply that it is railroads. Most people would also be surprised to discover that it is in fact, the wrong answer.  The RRC actually oversees the oil, gas and coal production within the state.  Ending this source of confusion by changing the name to something more appropriate seems like a no-brainer. This session, HB 237 attempts once again to change the name – to the Texas Energy Resources Commission, a name more in line with the actual work the commission does. HB 1818 offers a few of the reforms the RRC needs, but does not go nearly far enough.

Email your Texas State Representative to ask that he or she support amendments to HB 1818 that will offer real reform at the Railroad Commission.

Name vs. Mission

The Railroad Commission is 125 years old, making it the oldest regulatory agency in the state. When the commission was formed in 1891 its main job was to regulate the rail industry.  Once the Texas Oil Boom started the commission’s responsibilities were expanded to include regulating oil and gas. Over the years, as oil and gas became more dominant and railroads became less, most of the non-energy functions like the railroads were eliminated.  By 2005, when the RRC lost the last of any responsibility to regulate the railroads, its name became truly obsolete

Archaic Bond Limits and Unplugged Wells

One of the RRC biggest responsibilities is to cover the cost of plugging abandoned wells.  The way the RRC attempts to do this is by requiring companies to buy either individual or blanket bonds as insurance to cover the cost of plugging an abandoned well before they can drill. The cost of plugging a well is about $5-17 per foot for an average well. Unfortunately the bond cost has been stuck at the 1991 figure of $2 per foot. Bond funds usually cover only about 15% of the total cost to plug a well.  So in the end, the commission is only collecting a fraction of what is needed.  Last year the commission collected on average about $2,707 per well but spent about $17, 012.  That is an enormous discrepancy and therefore many of the wells remain unplugged. By the end of 2016, the total number of abandoned wells in Texas passed 10,050.

The environmental impact of unplugged wells is far reaching.  In Texas there are estimates that put over 50,000 improperly or not plugged wells.  These wells are often drilled over 1 mile deep and, if left unplugged there is the potential for salt water (4 times saltier than the sea) which is often full of heavy metals and radioactivity materials to flow up and seep into the surrounding land and into the fresh water aquifers.  Abandoned or improperly maintained wells retain their potential to kill the land and crops around them and taint the water supply for years. To properly close a well, hundreds of feet of cement must to be poured into the well at various levels.  SB 1803 would increase bonding requirements to ensure that unused wells are plugged.

Without a new statute that allows the commission to set realistic bonds based on the actual cost of plugging a well, this problem with continue to grow.  In addition, the oil and gas industry is in a slump right now with oil prices low and production down, which of course means that the revenues it generates is down and since the RRC gets most of their funding from fees, it will definitely make it even more difficult to do their job.

Enforcing Regulations with Meaningful Fines

Weak fines do not provide a strong enough deterrent to keep companies committing the same infraction over and over again. This can be clearly seen in the fact that over the past five years a mere 114 operators, representing only 3 percent of all the wells in Texas, have been responsible for over 22 percent of all the pollution related violations. If the RCC would increase its penalty for infractions that were set in 1983, from $10,000 a day to a relative current value of $25,000 a day, it would do much to discourage companies from repeatedly violating regulations.  SB 567 would bolster inspection enforcement and would increase revenue by increasing fines.

Insufficient Inspectors and Incomplete Inspections

The RRC is also in charge of inspecting all currently active and inactive wells within the state. This is a rather arduous task, considering that there are hundreds of thousands of well. The Texas inspector to well ratio is 2,340 active wells per inspector, one of the worst in the country.  In contrast, Alaska, a state that is also heavily petroleum based, has an inspector to well ratio of 370 to one! Due to insufficient numbers of inspectors, the Texas Sunset Commission reported that in 2015 only about 30% of all wells and only about 42% of active wells can be were inspected. They found that in 2015 more than two thirds of leases had not been inspected for at least two years and each lease can have thousands of wells on it. SB 569 would take the first step in fixing this, requiring the RRC to submit review of its policies on reporting and enforcement in a study by this September 2017. But, in the end, the of only surefire way to reverse this shortcoming is that the RRC must drastically increase the number of inspectors. To help offset the cost of hiring so many additional inspectors, an annual inspection fee should be instituted.

Outdated System Denies Public Needed Knowledge

The Railroad Commission desperately needs to modernize itself when it comes to public access to important information about oil and gas wells. As far back as 2011 the Legislature gave the RRC $16 million to help update their systems and make information easier to access, but, as of today, the RRC still does not have a comprehensive and easily searchable database for the public to look up complaints, violations, or penalties levied against oil and gas companies. Without an adequate system, it is very difficult for Texans to learn information about potential dangers to both their lives and their livelihood. This can impact everyone from a community trying to discover if the wells that operate outside their town are complying with regulations, or for the family moving to a new home who might want to see whether the well that operates just outside of their new property has repeatedly leaked dangerous pollutants. Inspections, complaints, violations, and enforcement actions should be accessible on a public website and searchable by operator, drilling company and or by the well, all year around. While HB 1818 includes nothing about this incredibly necessary function, HB 247 would greatly improve transparency.

Lax Limits Contribute to Corrupt Contributions

Another problem the RRC deals with, is the monetary influence that a company or individual can have on a commissioner who is seeking office.  While the RRC Commissioners were originally appointed by the Texas Governor, this was changed so that each of the three would be elected through public elections. And while greater accountability to the public is an improvement, it does come with its own set of potential issues that the current structure of the RRC fails to take into consideration. According to our own research here at Public Citizen, between 75-90% of all contributions for RRC Commissioner elections come from the very entities that the RRC is supposed to regulate, and much of it comes during non-election periods. In addition, Texas is one of the only states in the country that does not prohibit potential candidates with conflict of interests from running for Commissioner.

To address this situation, HB 464 would ban contributions during non-election years and prevent commissioners from taking any contributions from entities with contested case hearings pending before the RRC. Rules should also be added that officially require candidates to disclose any potential conflict of interests and only allow them to run if they can clearly demonstrate that they have resolved any conflicts.

All of these proposed changes to the way the RRC functions are crucial to make the agency operate in the interest of all Texans. Email your Texas State Representative to ask that he or she support amendments to HB 1818 that will offer real reform at the Railroad Commission.

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The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone had a happy Election Day last week, and is already looking forward to the next one. Here are this week’s highlights.

TXsharon continues to report from a backyard in the Barnett Shale. Despite all the local and national press on drilling related toxins, carcinogens and neurotoxins in our air, Aruba Petroleum Refuses a Simple Step to Improve Barnett Shale Air and thereby recklessly and willfully endangers public health and safety. Read it on Bluedaze: DRILLING REFORM FOR TEXAS.

refinish69 announces his endorsement for the Democratic nominee for Texas governor at Doing My Part For The Left. The progressive choice has to be Hank Gilbert with his policy issues and especially his strong stance on GLBT issues. Hank Gilbert for Texas Governor was the only choice refinish69 could make.

Justin at Asian American Action Fund Blog has a thorough take on the results of election day in Houston.

The Texas Cloverleaf provides an election night roundup of some of DFW’s races you never heard of, and some national ones you have.

If you dislike Rep. Dennis Kucinich as much as Mayor McSleaze, there’s probably something right with you.

quizas of South Texas Chisme notes that Galveston medical facilities are among those not notifying about rules for the poor, while CouldBeTrue notes South Texas Democrats join Republicans in shafting poor women. Shame on them.

BossKitty at TruthHugger Let me ‘dis’ the local Austin TV news media who gets around to breaking the Health Care Reform Bill news TWO and a half hours later. Hooray for the House Austin just lives in a bubble.

Over at BlueBloggin, nytexan takes a long look at another disgusting practice of our medical insurance industry. We Have One Twisted Health System, Living Organ Donors Beware. The organ donor’s family is never charged for donating. The family is charged for the cost of all final efforts to save your life, and those costs are sometimes misinterpreted as costs related to organ donation. Surprise for organ donors: unexpected medical bills. Austin man who gave kidney to co-worker is one of many who have faced health complications, billing problems.

Bay Area Houston says Hispanics, the largest voting block in Texas, are not voting.

WhosPlayin learned of an illegal meeting of Lewisville ISD trustees this past Thursday and Friday, and has video of trustees mentioning this blogger when discussing whether to implement video recording of trustee meetings.

Vince at Capitol Annex takes a look at an interesting story about Judge Sharon Keller of Court of Criminal Appeals that was eclipsed by the tragedy at Fort Hood.

Off the Kuff has six questions for the runoffs in Houston.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman toes the ethical line with her active promotion of an assistant for her job, and the local media thinks that’s just fine. Get the details in PDiddie’s Brains and Eggs.

At TexasKaos, Libby Shaw has news for Cornyn and Sessions about the Republican Resurgence. As she notes:

I wouldn’t gloat too much, boys. Your job in Washington just got a lot harder. Meanwhile, back here at home, in case you boys forgot that Houston is the largest city in Texas, three progressive Democrats and one Republican ran for mayor. The Republican dude and the old white guy with boatloads of bucks lost. The run-off race is between a gay woman and an African American male.

See the rest here: I have news for John Cornyn and Pete Sessions

WCNews at Eye On Williamson reports on the local toll authority’s latest shenanigans, CTRMA to jack up tolls on 183-A, add automatic annual increases.

Neil at Texas Liberal bought Thanksgiving cards drawn by a young person with cancer who is being treated at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The design Neil bought is both bleak and hopeful.

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Board Promises Transparency, Whistleblower Protections, Open Meetings

AUSTIN, Texas – The first meeting of the new board of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC) on Monday marked an unprecedented change in leadership and vision for the nation’s largest electric cooperative. Not only is the majority of the board progressive reformers, but it is led by an entirely new executive body that has promised to prioritize transparency, accountability, whistleblower protection, renewable energy and energy efficiency new priorities.

“The PEC has an opportunity to be a national leader among co-ops. Board members see that the future of electric power in America lies with energy efficiency and renewable energy,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “Public Citizen Texas applauds the board’s openness and commitment to member rights and looks forward to working with directors in the future as they further investigate how to make their visions reality.”

Considering that just last year the co-op was deep in the midst of a scandal involving accusations of misappropriated funds, theft, money laundering, closed meetings and tainted elections, Monday’s meeting marked an incredible turnaround.

PEC held a special meeting Monday to seat newly elected board directors Christi Clement, Patrick Cox and Larry Landacker. During this meeting, the full board held the elections for the positions of president, vice president and secretary for the coming year.

Landacker was nominated for president and elected with six votes in favor and one abstention;  Clements secured the vice presidency with four votes in favor and three abstentions, and Kathy Scanlon was unanimously elected to the position of board secretary.

During his acceptance speech, Landacker announced that the board would begin working immediately on several projects to reform the co-op and move toward becoming a more environmentally friendly, sustainable business. Landacker plans to adopt a co-op members’ Bill of Rights, guarantee open access to meetings, implement a new whistleblower protection policy and create a new and open governance system for the co-op. These laudable measures will ensure that members have the opportunity to participate fully in their co-op and in decisions, and that workers are encouraged to act in the best interests of member-owners.

Landacker also pledged to move forward aggressively with the co-op’s goal, set last November, to purchase or generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. As a part of this effort, the co-op plans to create new programs to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy projects among individual members.

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