The Texas Railroad Commission is a very powerful regulator that oversees much of the state’s energy industry. One thing he doesn’t regulate is railroads. And has not in years.
Because of this, a new organization called the Commission Shift is pushing for a renaming of the commission in this legislative session. Virginia Palacios, the nonprofit’s chief executive, told the Standard about what she says are issues with the government agency. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: Why was the Shift Commission created? What is your mission?
Virginia Palacios: I started the Commission Shift program because I felt there was a big gap in the Texas environmental movement. We worked so hard on different roles, but there was always a feeling that we could not achieve anything in the Railway Commission, because there was an understanding that commission members have personal financial interests in the same companies that they should work for. be oversight.
Well, what’s in the name? I mean, it’s called the Texas Railroad Commission, but most Texans, at least people who seem to be politically focused, know what the Texas Railroad Commission is, right?
No, it’s not like that at all. In fact, a University of Texas poll showed that the vast majority of voters in Texas have no idea what the Railroad Commission does. And so the reason this is important is because this government body is elected, not appointed, like most government bodies. And so when people go to the polls to vote for a railroad commissioner, they should know that they are voting for the state’s most important energy agency and that it has nothing to do with trains or railroads.
Well, going back to 2013 and 2015, the Sunset Advisory Commission seems to agree with you. They suggested changing the name for the same reason – transparency. Legislators did not respond to this. Why did the name stick around for so long?
Well, some people say it’s because of tradition, but we’ve also heard some pretty bad reasons why the name has stayed the same. One was that it would be too expensive to change office supplies. The other was that Saudi Arabia would not know who we are. So it’s just not a good reason. If we really care about democracy and transparency, then voters have a right to know what this agency is doing.
Well, if not Texas Railroad Commission, what would you recommend as a better name and why?
Most other states have an oil and gas regulator called the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. In some other states, the word “minerals” is added to the name. Therefore, we recommend the Texas Oil, Gas and Minerals Commission.
I think that in some places oil and gas are in the utility sector. We have a Public Service Commission, don’t we?
We have a utility commission. And in most other states, the Public Utilities Commission is responsible for overseeing gas service in the state, but not in Texas. In Texas, the Railroad Commission oversees gas utilities.
I guess one of the arguments might be that, because of the nature and size of the oil and gas industry in Texas, we need a commission dedicated to this task.
Right. Thus, Texas produces more oil and gas than any other state in the country. If we were our own country, we would rank fourth in terms of crude oil production. Thus, Texas is an extremely important location for oil and gas production throughout the world. And, you know, we also emit more greenhouse gases than any other state in the country.
So what are you asking the legislative session to do in this new session? I mean, what exactly do you want legislators to do?
Well, we hope legislators would rather give voters and Texas residents more leverage than a few large corporations. And so we are asking the legislature to reduce the amount of time that railroad commissioners can raise funds so that they do not fundraise at key decision-making points throughout their entire six-year term. We are also asking for a limit on the total value of any campaign contribution an individual can make to a railroad commissioner’s campaign. And in general, to limit the influence of corporations in these campaigns.
Are legislators more inclined towards this in this session than in previous recent sessions?
You know, we will certainly try to warm up this session. And I think the difference is that we just experienced a major natural disaster back in 2021. And it seems obvious that the Railway Commission has not always acted in good faith. And part of that has to do with these campaign contributions that we’re seeing and these financial interests that we’re seeing. And so I think it’s hard to separate the kinds of results, the kinds of devastating results that we’re seeing in the state, from these relationships and these conflicts of interest. And so I hope that the legislators will make the right decision and try to reduce the number of biased decisions that we can see in the commission.