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Texas Railroad Commission Lacked Transparency in Environmental Rules Case 

Public Citizen to Host Zoom Call at 1 p.m. Today for Reporters Covering Case

Texas Railroad Commission Lacked Transparency in Environmental Rules Case

AUSTIN, TEXAS  In response to a Public Citizen lawsuit, a state district judge in Austin has ordered the Texas Railroad Commission to halt orders granting exceptions to environmental rules. The exceptions bailed out the beleaguered oil and gas industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The rules are designed to prevent environmental damage by requiring oil companies to cap unplugged wells and clean up waste pits. If the Texas Railroad Commission wants to suspend the rules again, at least before trial, it can do so only after posting proper notice of the rules at issue, the court ruled. The commission regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas. 

Judge Jan Soifer, citing the Texas Open Meetings Act, ruled that the commission gave “insufficient notice to the public that the [Railroad Commission] would adopt orders that grant exceptions or provide the means to grant exceptions for a year or more to a number of substantive oil and gas rules.” 

 Public Citizen and two of its members, ranchers Molly Rooke and Hugh Fitzsimons, sued the Railroad Commission of Texas in State District Court in July for unlawfully suspending rules designed to force oil and gas companies to clean up their messes and protect public health and private landowners. During a hearing on July 26, the plaintiffs urged Soifer to halt the rules suspensions. 

“We’re thankful Judge Soifer recognized the commission violated the Texas Open Meetings Act,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “Just as the pandemic began to batter the Texas economy, Public Citizen and other advocates suggested the Railroad Commission address the falling demand for oil by curtailing waste and limiting production. Instead, it gave a handout to the oil and gas industry, and it did so without following the law. The commission also deprived the state budget of fees collected from the industry right before a difficult legislative session. It’s time for lawmakers to regain control of the Railroad Commission and the oil industry it is supposed to regulate.” 

Railroad Commission records show that there are at least 6,208 abandoned wells in Texas, 1,606 of which have been inactive for twenty years or more. The average cleanup cost for one well in 2020 is $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 

“I’m grateful that the court has prevented the Railroad Commission from using the COVID health crisis to waive the oil and gas industry’s responsibility protect our health,” said Molly Rooke, a rancher who has had to endure an uncapped well spewing toxic gas onto her property. “These old wells are ticking time bombs and they get much more likely by the day to blow or leak, putting not only our health and safety at risk but that of the community. Judge Soifer recognized that the commission is not above the law and landowner rights still matter in Texas.” 

“All we’re asking the commission and the oil and gas industry to do is clean up their mess after drilling,” said Hugh Fitzsimons, a landowner with abandoned wells on his land. “Industry has profited from the extraction of oil and gas, landowners have profited from it, and the state of Texas has profited from it. But now that so many companies are facing bankruptcy, it’s more likely than ever that they will leave behind messes they can’t clean up.”  

Zoom call information for today’s press conference at 1 p.m. Central Time: 

Meeting ID: 856 9773 6501 
By phone: (346) 248-7799 

Meeting ID: 85697736501#