They don’t have much to do with railroads anymore, but the elected three-member Railroad Commission plays a vitally important check in the state’s regulatory environment affecting the oil and gas industry. Some in the Legislature want to eliminate this constitutional agency. That’s a poorly considered idea, for a number of important reasons.

Let’s be candid: the current commission hasn’t done themselves many favors. One of the railroad commissioners stepped down mid-term to seek the Senate seat currently held Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (she isn’t seeking re-election). A second commissioner is actively seeking the seat (but hasn’t stepped down).

That makes it look, to some, like the commissioners don’t take their job very seriously, so maybe the positions aren’t needed.

As flawed as it is, such thinking apparently swayed the Texas Senate, which voted 29-2 this week for legislation that would abolish the RRC, create the Texas Oil & Gas Commission, and eliminate two of the three commissionerships.

That would be arbitrarily eliminating two statewide elected positions the voters of Texas have filled in the last several years. Feel disenfranchised? You should. If for no other reason than this abolition of constitutional offices is being conducted without a constitutional amendment, through the sunset process.

The three-member Railroad Commission doesn’t just run an agency – you really don’t need three commissioners for that. It is also serves as a kind of administrative court, setting regulations and settling disputes. That’s why for more than 120 years there have been three commissioners: to set up a fair and accountable system. One commissioner might be capricious in his rulings, show favoritism, or otherwise flawed in judgment.

To be fair, the legislation by State Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) doesn’t give this Oil & Gas Commissioner such power. Instead, his legislation moves administrative hearing functions over to an obscure agency known as the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

SOAH was established in 1991 by the legislature. The agency is headed by the “chief administrative law judge,” appointed by the governor for a two-year term. Up until now, SOAH’s responsibilities have generally centered around hearings dealing with the departments of Insurance, Agriculture and Health, as well as the Public Utilities Commission.

Taking disputes involving the oil and gas industry – a major driver of the state’s economy – away from publicly elected commissioners, and into the hands of an appointed judge, seems a step in the wrong direction. It eliminates the kind of public accountability and scrutiny Texans have enjoyed for more than a century.

This is not a cost-savings move. At best, it would be cost-neutral, but it’s more likely to add expenses to the state and industry – all of which get passed on to the taxpayers and consumers.

That some number of the current crop of railroad commission officeholders seem to have designs on other offices shouldn’t be cause to eliminate the positions. Otherwise, perhaps we should also abolish the Texas House, Texas Senate, Lieutenant Governor and Governor?

We should jealously guard our rights as citizens to elect those who serve us in positions of public trust and power. It took a state constitutional amendment a couple years ago to abolish the county-level position of “hide inspector.” Shouldn’t a massive change to the regulatory body overseeing the oil and gas industry be similarly handled?

Various proposals exist to ensure a more serious crop of officeholders, if that’s a concern. For example, one could prohibit anyone elected to the commission from seeking a different office during all but the last year of their term.

There are also legitimate concerns about the impact such a radical reorganization could have on the environmental regulatory authority granted from the federal government. The 120-year-old Railroad Commission has fairly broad authority, but the new entity would likely have to seek out the approval of the Obama Administration to achieve it. Any guess how that might go?

Renaming the Railroad Commission as the Oil & Gas Commission makes sense, if for no other reason than a bit of political and policy honesty. But reducing the number of publicly elected commissioners from three to one? That’s far more problematic, and would create a less transparent and accountable government.

One can only hope the Texas House will have more respect for both our state’s the democratic institutions, and efficiency in government, when they take up the measure in the coming weeks.

Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan is the publisher of Texas Scorecard. He is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M, and Eagle Scout. Previously, he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, Capitol Hill staffer, think tank vice president. Michael and his wife have three adult children, and a dog. Check out his podcast, Reflections on Life and Liberty.

RELATED POSTS