Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Ask the Candidates: Should the Railroad Commission Change Its Name?


Photos by Landov

Questioning the Candidates for Texas’ Oil and Gas Regulator

The Republican race for a seat opening up on the Railroad Commission of Texas has focused on issues that have little or nothing to do with the commission: abortion, gun rights, and even Obamacare. That’s because — and we’re writing this now for what seems like the hundreth time — the Railroad Commission is the state oil and gas regulator, and has nothing do with railroads.

We here at StateImpact Texas were curious what the Republican candidates had to say about the real policy issues facing the commission, as well as the candidates from other parties. So we put together a¬†questionnaire¬†that did just that, and every candidate save one, Republican Ryan Sitton, agreed to participate. (Despite requests to Sitton’s campaign and to a consulting firm he hired, we have not received any direct response.) The powerful commission is the only state regulatory body run by elected leaders; all other major state regulators are run by gubernatorial appointees.

But if you’re hoping to hear what most of the Republican candidates have to say about manmade earthquakes linked to drilling activity, the use of eminent domain for routing private oil and gas pipelines, or ethics reforms, you may be disappointed. While all of the Democratic, Libertarian and Green candidates responded to the¬†questionnaire¬†as promised, only one¬†Republican¬†candidate, Becky Berger, did so. The campaigns of Republicans Wayne Christian and Malachi Boyuls both agreed to answer the questionnaire, but despite being giving an extra week to do so (and follow-up emails and phone calls), they have not yet turned in their responses.

Each day this week we’ll be posting the responses we did receive from six of the nine candidates. Today’s issue? Where the candidates stand on changing the name of the commission. The commission got its start regulating railroads in the 19th century, but the railroad industry in Texas peaked in the 1930s, and the commission hasn’t had anything to with railroads since the eighties. The commission’s name was supposed to be changed as a package of reforms during the last legislative session, but under pressure from Railroad Commissioners, those reforms didn’t pass.¬†

Q. Do you believe the name of the Railroad Commission should be changed to more accurately reflect its mission? Why or why not?

  • Becky Berger, Republican: “Yes, but not at this point in time. We have offshore permits that would have to be reissued and signed off on by the current federal administration, which I believe would put those wells that are operating in the Gulf at risk. We can change the name when there is an oil and gas friendly administration in the White House.”
  • Steve Brown, Democrat: “Absolutely. The name should reflect its jurisdiction over energy resources in our state.”
  • Dale Henry, Democrat: “The name of the Railroad Commission should not be changed in its entirety. A historical value (in my opinion) needs to be retained by keeping ‘Railroad’ in any name that may be proposed as a change. Railroads made Texas. The first Railroad Commission made the growth of Texas a reality by giving 640-acre sections of land to railroad companies as incentive to build railroads in and across Texas. Why? To bring in people to settle; to bring materials to make businesses and homes and schools and to transport produce to market and to see that all communities had a fair chance to grow. No other segment of the Texas government has this part of our history in its name. We should keep [that] part to remember our heritage.”
  • Jason Kute, Libertarian: “Yes. A large number of Texans do not understand what the Railroad Commission does, I believe a renaming of the Commission would help clear up some of the confusion. I think “Texas Energy Commission” proposed by [Bill] Stevens is the most forward-thinking title.”
  • Mark Miller, Libertarian: “Yes. Though some have expressed concerns that changing the Commission‚Äôs name would diminish its historical and world-wide significance, I believe that these concerns do not outweigh the value of clearly conveying the Commission‚Äôs actual responsibilities to the people of Texas. The Commission, however, also has certain regulatory and enforcement responsibilities relegated to it by the federal government. In the process of changing the Railroad Commission‚Äôs name it will be important to ensure that the assignment of those enforcement responsibilities continues uninterrupted.”
  • Martina Salinas, Green Party: “If a name change helps clarify the role of the commission for Texas citizens, and there is no extra cost to the state, I am for it.”
Answers are listed alphabetically by candidate, with answers edited for clarity.

Next on our list of policy questions for the candidates? Their positions on ethics reforms that would change commissioners ability to run for office with funds from the oil and gas companies they regulate.

Early voting for the Republican and Democratic primaries is currently underway and runs until Friday; the primary is next Tuesday, March 4. Unless one of the candidates receives more than fifty percent of the vote in each party, the top two candidates will go to a runoff, with voting on May 27.

This is the first in a series of questions for the candidates for Railroad Commissioner. Part 2 asked the candidates for their positions on a variety of reforms for the commission. Part 3 asked the candidates what the Railroad Commission should do about manmade earthquakes linked to oil and gas drilling activity. You can read more about the Railroad Commission here. 
Participants: Becky Berger, Republican; Steve Brown, Democrat; Dale Henry, Democrat; Jason Kute, Libertarian; Mark Miller, Libertarian; Martina Salinas, Green Party. Republican candidates Malachi Boyuls, Wayne Christian and Ryan Sitton did not respond.

*This post was updated to add information on previous attempts to change the name of the commission.


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