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Fracking and flaring heat railroad commission race

Written by John Austin Cnhi

Click HERE to Read the Article by the Publisher.

AUSTIN — Being one of three Texas railroad commissioners isn’t a glamour job.

Members generally have less visibility than other state officials and when they are in the news, the stories are often about environmental critics, hammering those who run the Texas Railroad Commission with allegations of lax oversight.

But there’s little arguing that an organization charged with regulating the businesses responsible for a huge chunk of the Texas economy isn’t a big player, even if it no longer sets the world price of oil — or runs the railroads.

 “Most people aren’t aware of how important the Railroad Commission is to the state of Texas,” said Wayne Christian, the Republican who is one of four candidates to replace David Porter in the November general election. “If you drive on roads, you’re in the oil-and-gas business.”

The state Sunset Advisory Commission earlier this year called for big changes at the commission, such as moving natural gas regulation to a different agency, and lawmakers will be acting on recommendations next year.

Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association, said that some of the recommendations are a “very heavy stick” to use on the commission, even if changes are needed.

Most of the proposed changes would be invisible to the average voter.

But the agency’s response to reports on earthquakes last year put the commission on many Texans’ radar.

Researchers purported to show a connection between the Texas earthquakes and disposal wells, many of which contain toxic drilling materials.

The commission hired a seismologist, but the commissioners were skeptical of a connection.

“I’ve got some serious questions about that study,” Commissioner Ryan Sitton said of an earthquake study involving scientists from Southern Methodist University.

Sitton said the study was “extremely narrow.”

But Mark Miller, the Libertarian candidate for the commission seat, said the agency is “behind the eight ball” in not embracing the findings.

“The commission was wrong on that,” said Miller, a former University of Texas at Austin petroleum engineering professor. “This problem is not going away.”

Brett Wells, a University of Houston Law Center oil-and-gas professor, said the commissioners are also overlooking another issue.

“They should not allow valuable natural gas to be flared simply because a pipeline connection is not available for six weeks,” Wells said.

Those of just a few of the problems that Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, sees at the commission.

“For the Railroad Commission to ignore that is really tragic,” Metzger said of the earthquake research.

But Christian downplayed the research on earthquakes and drilling, saying that, “the EPA couldn’t prove it. SMU couldn’t prove it.”

Dismissing “all of these green people,” the former state representative, said he’s is bullish on the commission, and on the Texas industry it governs.

Texas oil and gas “bailed out Obama’s butt,” by powering the U.S. economy, Christian said.

Apart from the debate over seismic activity and the looming possibility of legislative action on the sunset committee’s report, Sitton said that one the commission’s biggest current problems is funding.

The agency is largely self-funded through fees and taxes.

Yet as demands to plug thousands of wells grows, and along with calls for tougher regulation, staffing is down and employees are leaving for other agencies, Sitton said.

The job, however, has never been bigger.

“At the end of the day, to the extent that they’ve been delegated by the Legislature, they do have authority to regulate the oil-and-gas industry,” Wells said.

“They have to come to us to get a permit and follow the rules we put in place,” Sitton said.

Tags: oil, gas, natural gas

Written by John Austin Cnhi

Click HERE to Read the Article by the Publisher.