The Texas Railroad Commission today tried to rectify its unlawful violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act that led to relaxed environmental rules for oil and gas operators last spring, but the state agency is still flouting the law.
Public Citizen and two private Texas landowners sued the Railroad Commission in state district court in July for violations of the Open Meetings Act and Administrative Procedure Act stemming from its May 5 vote. Last month, a state district judge in Austin ordered the commission to halt the environmental rules exceptions it granted to the oil and gas industry under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic. An appeal of that order is pending.
This matter is the only item on the Railroad Commission’s agenda for today’s meeting, and it appears that the three-member panel will try to correct its deficient actions from the May 5 meeting. But the commission’s attempt to cover its tracks still falls short of compliance with the law. If the commission wants to suspend rules, it must comply with the laws that apply to rulemakings: The Open Meetings Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
“With this latest haphazard action, the Railroad Commission is doubling down on an illegal move that gives a handout to the oil and gas industry at the expense of Texans,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “The Railroad Commission cannot simply make its action retroactive. We are still counting on the court to undo the damage done by eight months of operation under illegal rule suspensions.”
This latest attempt by the Railroad Commission to preserve its handout to the oil and gas industry is deficient for the following reasons:
- It doesn’t adequately describe the proposed changes;
- It doesn’t provide for a 30-day comment period;
- It fails to do a fiscal analysis of the proposal and its impact on the state;
- It does not describe an emergency that would justify any deviation from the statutory requirements;
- It fails to analyze the impact on local employment; and
- It fails to seek public comment.
The supposed emergency the RRC relied on in the original rule suspensions – decreased global demand and falling oil prices – no longer exists. Although Public Citizen disagrees with this original justification, even those circumstances no longer apply to the current situation.
“We strongly disagree that a suspension of the rules was warranted in the first place, but the industry emergency the commission used to justify it has largely passed,” Shelley said. “Meanwhile, landowners across Texas are still at risk from orphaned and abandoned wells on their property.”
Railroad Commission records show that there are at least 6,208 abandoned wells in Texas, 1,606 of which have been inactive for at least two decades. The average cleanup cost for one well in 2020 was $20,000. This pressing issue, which jeopardizes public health and the environment in Texas, should be examined by lawmakers in the upcoming session the legislature, especially with the oil and gas industry facing a series of bankruptcies.