Texas lawmaker wants more transparency at Railroad Commission

by John Moritz, Corpus Christi Caller Times—

Three months after state Sen. Jose Rodriguez asked the Texas Railroad Commission for information on how oil spills dating back to 2014 have affected waterways, he received a CD containing what he called “a jumble of documents” that was unsearchable and only went back to 2015.

And when Roxanne Elder requested information on oilfield operations on the land in DeWitt County that’s been in her family for 150 years, she said she was forced to jump through a maze of red tape before the information was provided by the state agency 10 months later.

“I’m frustrated and dismayed,” Elder told a legislative panel Tuesday.

The panel is considering a bill that would require the agency that regulates the Texas oil and gas industry to develop a searchable online database where anyone can find information such as inspection reports, enforcement actions and complaints.

Rodriguez said he filed Senate Bill 568, after a report last year in the El Paso Times pointed out significant gaps in the Railroad Commission’s responses to the spillage of petroleum products as a result of flooding.

An in a white paper prepared in advance of the 2017 legislative session, the Texas Sunset Commission also found significant flaws in the way the commission tracks such spills and reports them to the public.

Early in the legislative session Railroad Commission Chairwoman Christi Craddick asked that $3 million be added to the agency’s budget to develop a searchable database. The money is expected to be included in the 2018-19 state budget, which is not yet finalized.

“We would love to make (online reporting) more vibrant,” Craddick told the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee. “We think that is very important for us long-term, but we don’t have the available dollars to do that at this time.”

Several environmental groups, including the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Texas Campaign for the Environment have endorsed the legislation because it would allow greater transparency into government operations.

Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Sierra Club affiliate, told the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee that while the commission is making improvements in the way it provides public information, “It’s not quite there. It’s getting there.”

Representatives of the oil and gas industry, which typically resists measures that add regulatory power to government agencies, did not testify at the hearing but they did register opposition.

The committee is unlikely to vote in Rodriguez’s legislation until next week at the earliest. But the El Paso Democrat said the public benefit to making government records more accessible outweighs any concerns from the oil and gas lobby.

“I am hoping and insisting that they provide the public this information,” he said.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at John.Moritz@caller.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

 

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