Alarmed by a faulty railroad crossing signal in your neighborhood?
Aggravated by loud, late-night honking as a freight train trundles through your community?
Don’t bother calling the Texas Railroad Commission for help.
Once upon a time — at its founding more than a century ago — the state agency was charged with overseeing rail matters. But for decades the Railroad Commission’s regulation of trains has ebbed; the agency fully transferred oversight of railroads to the Texas Department of Transportation in 2005.
On Monday, state lawmakers will hear arguments to change the agency’s name — as they have several times over the last decade — to something like the Texas Energy Resources Commission. After all, the agency is the chief regulator of the oil and gas industry and of mining and pipeline operations.
Government watchdog types have long contended that an enforcement agency with “energy” in its name is likely to get far more scrutiny than one with the quaint “railroad” moniker.
But because of a mix of politics and power, any name change proposal appears doomed, as were such measures in 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
Oil and gas industry representatives historically have said they were neutral or opposed to a name change, often citing costs to the agency itself.
Confusion over name
But in April, the staff of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which regularly reviews state agency operations and is holding Monday’s hearing, said that changing the agency’s name won’t have a cost.
“The agency is already updating its letterhead and website every two years with the election of a new commissioner,” the staff observed in a report.
The staff report dismissed other concerns about a possible name change, including the prospect that the agency would be somehow forced to cede control over regulation to federal authorities.
“While the commission still regulates oil and gas drilling and production, it has not overseen railroads in many years,” noted the April report. “Capitol insiders know this, but the average citizen, busy with the demands of everyday life, most assuredly does not.”
At least once a day, for example, the receptionist for the three railroad commissioners handles a call from someone hoping for help on a railroad issue matter.
The report also cited other problems with confusion over the agency’s name:
- In the case of an emergency related to oil and gas activity, Texans might not know the appropriate agency to contact.
- With hydraulic fracturing on the rise in suburban and urban areas, more people might want to contact state officials and might not know whom to call.
- Voters might not effectively endorse or ratify policy positions of elected commissioners.
‘A valuable brand’
Standing in the way of any change is state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, an influential lawmaker who has served nearly 50 years and was House speaker.
Craddick represents the oil-rich Permian Basin region, and the name change has become something of a pet issue for him.
“The average Texan doesn’t want the federal government to have more control of the industry in Texas,” he told the American-Statesman, claiming a name change could open the way to federal takeover.
He said the commission’s name is “well-known worldwide,” in places as varied as Pennsylvania and the Middle East, calling it “a valuable brand.”
The standard-bearer for a name change is Ryan Sitton, one of three elected commissioners for the agency, who says the name change is about transparency and good governance.
“If it went to the House floor, a name change would pass overwhelmingly,” Sitton, a Republican, said in an interview. “But if one group really opposes it, someone has to really stand up and be for it. And constituents tend to be more worried about public education financing and health and human services issues.”
Sitton is wealthy — he lent his own campaign $1 million in 2013 — making him less dependent on campaign contributions from the oil and gas companies with whom Craddick is closely connected.
The other commissioners appear less keen to change the name. Commissioner Christi Craddick, daughter of Tom Craddick, said, “As regulator, I’d tell you that a name change for the commission is simply not our priority today.”
“It’s costly, and we should be directing any additional funding to items critical to our operations such as (information technology) improvements and staff salaries,” she continued.
Chairman David Porter has said he supports a name change, but he is due to leave office, to be replaced by former state Rep. Wayne Christian, a Republican from East Texas.
On the campaign trail, Christian, who had the endorsement of the Texas Oil and Gas Association political action committee, declared that a name change wasn’t necessary.
The Texas Railroad Commission
At 125 years old, the Texas Railroad Commission is one of the state’s oldest agencies.
Initially, it determined rail passenger fares and freight rates and administered laws relating to the railroads of Texas. The agency began regulating pipelines and the oil industry in the early 20th century.
In the latter part of that century, the Railroad Commission began losing sway over trains. The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 vested rail safety responsibilities in the Federal Railroad Administration and under the provisions of a 1980 federal law, the Railroad Commission could play only a passive role in rate setting. By 1984, the Railroad Commission ceased its role of economic regulation of the Texas rail industry.
In 2005, the Legislature transferred remaining rail safety oversight from the Railroad Commission to the Texas Department of Transportation, leaving the commission with no regulatory authority related to any aspect of the rail industry.