Texpatriate endorses for Railroad Commissioner

The Texas Railroad Commission, despite its byzantine name, is responsible for the regulation of oil and gas throughout the state. It is an enormous responsibility for a state so inextricably linked with the creation of energy. With three commission members serving staggered terms, a sole commissioner seat will be up for election this year.

The incumbent, Barry Smitherman, has been a terrible commissioner in his limited tenure. Between focusing on red-meat social issues that have little to do with energy and neglecting his duties for an ill-fate run toward higher office, Smitherman has — as Chairman of the Commission — reduced the position to a rubber stamp for the oil and gas industry. With Smitherman retiring, Republican candidate Ryan Sitton looks certain to continue this legacy.

Now, in the midst of Texas’ biggest oil boom since the 1970s, being friendly to the industry is not necessarily a bad thing. The recent rev-up in production has the capacity to revitalize the lives of countless Texans and send our economy into overdrive. But the point of a regulatory body is not merely to be a cheerleader for the industry, but to protect the public and foster policies for the benefit of the entire community.

Sitton, an oil and gas engineer, appears complacent to continue along with business as usual. On the other hand, Steven Brown, the Former Chairman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, wants to ensure people are protected above all else. Though not classically trained in the industry, Brown has proven himself to have an impressive mastery of all the issues that the commission faces.

At issue here more than anything else is the dispute over hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as “fracking.” The process involves injecting high-pressure liquid into shale rocks that contain natural gas and petroleum, making previously unreachable resources available. Without a doubt, these processes have left a positive mark on Texas. They have helped expedite weaning us off of foreign energy sources, as well as enriching portions of the state and jumpstarting the economy.

But real concerns remain. Namely, the freshwater of these regions has been comprised and some evidence exists that these procedures can cause minor earthquakes. This has prompted many liberals and others affected to call for an outright ban, if not a moratorium, on the measure.

For Brown’s part, he has been more tempered. He wishes to end some fracking into those areas with serious earthquakes, as well as ban the use of freshwater for fracking, but he does not merely want to end the largely successful practice. This measured approach is far superior to Sitton’s mindset, which is to ignore the myriad complications that have arisen.

Additionally, we simply cannot take Sitton seriously as a candidate considering his serious ethical breaches throughout the campaign. As someone who has a significant interest in many oil companies, Sitton originally defiantly stated that he would not divest his interests if elected, despite the fact that he would have regulatory power over those same companies. Only much later did he reverse his stance in an insincere effort to carry favor with voters. This led us against endorsing Sitton in the Republican primary for the post, despite the fact that we agreed with him on policy more than his opponent in that election.

Thus, it would be an easy choice to support Brown in this election. But we also tend to agree with him more on policy choices and actual issues that the commission might face. He wants to be for the people, Sitton wants to be for the profits.

Accordingly, this board endorses Steven Brown for Railroad Commissioner.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

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Lege udpate 5/14

Final Tallies
As I mentioned last night, both the Campaign Disclosure bill and the Michael Morton bill were one step away from being sent to Perry. Well, at end of business tonight, they have both passed roll call votes and been sent to Perry’s desk. The Governor will most likely veto the former and sign the later.

The Disclosure bill passed 95-52, just shy of overriding capability. The only opposition came from far-right Republicans. Debbie Riddle was the only Houstonian I could find opposing the measure. Meanwhile, the Michael Morton Act continued its support in unanimity, succeeding 147-0. If Perry signs it, it will take effect immediately.

TRC lives another day
The Texas Railroad Commission will not be reformed in any way, according to the Tribune. After the Senate passed an ambitious bill that did a lot of good, including stricter regulations for the Commissioners (as well as name change for the organization), the legislation was greeted as dead on arrival in the lower chamber by Energy Resources Committee Chairman Jim Keffer (R-Eastland).

Guns on Campus probably a reality
The so-called “Campus Carry” or “Guns-on-Campus” bill looks like it will be a reality after all. Facing the threat of an ambitious piece of legislation mandating the practice for all institutions of higher learning to be jammed through the Special Session, Senator Whitmire folded and allowed the less ambitious HB972 to be voted out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

The Committee voted 5-2, with all four Republicans joining Senator Juan Hinojosa (D-Hidalgo) in supporting the measure. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) were the only two opposed. This bill, unlike one the Senate previously shot down, allows public universities to opt-out if they want to. So, as I have said before, this would create Guns on Campus for A&M and Tech, but not UT, UH or TSU.

The Texas Tribune has the full story on this.

Legislative update 5/3

I’d like to apologize for my lacking activity in the last few days, it’s finals week. I’ll be done on Monday evening, and will be heading back to Houston on Wednesday morning for nearly four months. My day job this summer will be at the Federal Courthouse downtown, but I can’t go into any more detail than that. I will probably visit Austin 2-3 times in the next couple weeks, though.

Texas Energy Resources Commission
I talked at length a few days ago about a House bill that would, among other things, rename the Railroad Commission to something more relevant to what they actually do. That bill being highlighted was, from what I understand, a House bill, but it has recently passed the Senate **UPDATE: House Committee passed the original legislation as well**. The Trib reports that SB 212, proposed by Senator Robert Nichols, has passed unanimously. The Tribune says it was a “21-0” vote, but it was actually 31-0, hence the unanimity. The new name will be the “Texas Energy Resources Commission.”

Protecting Good Samaritans and victims
The Trib reports that Lon Burnam’s HB  3738 has passed committee. The bill would prohibit police officers from inquiring about the immigration status of either victims of crimes, or witnesses thereto. The online thing-a-ma-bobber doesn’t do roll calls for committee votes, but the number was 8-4-1. The Committee consists of 8 Republicans and Five Democrats. Rene Oliveira has made MIA from the House recently, and he is a member of the committee. Therefore, it looks like four of the Republicans voted for this measure. Good for them.

Hit and run
I discussed a few weeks ago that Senator Watson’s hit-and-run punishment bill had passed the Senate. Now, according to the Statesman, it has done so in the House of Representatives. HB 72 by Allen Fletcher was unanimous and increases the penalty of a hit-and-run to the same level as intoxication manslaughter. The bill is now sent to Perry, and, if he signs it, it would become law immediately.

Goodbye, Railroads?

The Chronicle (behind that asinine paywall; try The Dallas Morning News) is reporting the legislature discussing something that should have been done a long time ago. The debate thing morning is over whether or not to rename the Texas Railroad Commission to the Texas Energy Commission. 

A little history: the Railroad Commission was started in 1891 by Governor Hogg, back when railroads were the biggest name in town. Gradually, throughout the 1910s, the regulatory body, one of the first in Texas, was given jurisdiction over all transportation and (for some reason) oil & gas. In the 1930s, the oil boom hit. Ironically, the growth of oil was one of the main reasons for the rise of the automobile and the decline of the train, solidifying the change of what the Railroad Commission was actually doing.

From the 1930s until the formation of OPEC in 1973, the Texas Railroad Commission essentially was the body that set the world price of oil. Arguably, OPEC was inspired by the the Texas Railroad Commission. Since the 1970s, this body has still been a major player in US energy policy. Additionally, since the early 1980s, the commission hasn’t even had jurisdiction over railroads or other transportation.

That brings us to today. The Legislature wants people to be reminded the Railroad Commission isn’t actually about railroads. The Morning News quotes Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), the Chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, in support of the law. However, it quotes a lot of powerful people on both sides (Tom Craddick and Gene Wu) who are deeply opposed to it. Their opinion, which I do share, is that anyone who has been in the oil and gas business for more than a week already knows what the Texas Railroad Commission is. It isn’t that complicated.

Keffer and his friends wish to slip an amendment into Railroad Commission reauthorization bill to officially rename the agency. I’m not quite sure why it is getting so much media today.