There's no better symbol of the anachronism that is Texas state government than the ineptly named Railroad Commission, or RRC. It has nothing to do with choo-choos, and everything to do with the State's oil and gas legacy.
Or is it misnamed? Its innocuous title keeps it off a lot of citizens' radar screens while going about its business of shoving anyone or anything not in the oil and gas business around to make it more comfortable. Our drilling contaminating your water? You can to get the bottled stuff delivered. Our waste disposal causing earthquakes? You'll get used to it. Our air pollution causing your child's nosebleed? What's a couple of ER visits compared to our nation's energy security? Railroad? Yes – it's right there in our name.
Instead of being appointed by the Governor, the three RRC commissioners are elected statewide…with the help of contributions from the oil and gas industry. This isn't the fox guarding the hen house. There are no hens left.
This is why any review of the Commission, even one by the equally inept State Legislature, is a chance to get the word out about how god-awful the RRC is and what needs to be done to overhaul it. Beginning this month, that's what's happening, because 2017 is the year the Railroad Commission is getting "sunsetted" by the state.
Sunset laws demand that every state agency must come before the legislature and justify itself anew about every 12 years. Usually pro forma exercises, occasionally a terrible agency is allowed to die. Most have their missions amended or rules tweaked, or their names changed. this is how the "Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission," or, "TNRCC/"TRAINWRECK," became the "Texas Commission on Environmental Quality/"TCEK." After being postponed last session, it's the Railroad Commission's turn now.
Tomorrow night's faux-official Town Hall meeting on the Railroad Commission being sponsored by Earthworks, Public Citizen and the Sierra Club is a kind of milk run for the more important job of testifying in front of state legislators in Austin later in the month, on the 22nd. Attend to find out how you can use this process to gain more publicity for its terrible record, and perhaps be able to actaully tweak the system to be more citizen-friendly.
Texas Railroad Commission Town Hall
Tuesday, August 2
Grapevine Convention Center
1209 Main St.
(located off 114 and Main St. exit)
Registration: 6:30 pm
Program: 7:00 pm
Texas Railroad Commission Public Testimony at the Capitol
Monday, August 22
For more information on the whole process, talk to Rita Beving with Public Citizen and the Sierra Club, 214.557.2271
A second member of the Texas Railroad Commission has accused US fracking opponents of being financed by Russian gas interests. That makes two out of three. Your immediate reaction may be: "Oh yeah, Where's my check?" But Davis Porter is serious, and in making the charge, Porter is walking a fine line in seriously slandering Josh Fox and others with his reckless accusation, which has everything it needs except, you know, proof.
Porter made the claim in a snappy press release entitled “Porter Exposes Putin Plot to Hurt Texas Economy,” that jumps from the fact that the Russian gas giant Gazprom has hired a US public relations company to try and soften the impacts of sanctions over the Ukraine crisis into a dark and secret conspiracy to promote home grown fracking opposition. Believing this story would first require the laughable leap of faith that the PR firm's go-to Gazprom lobbyists, former GOP Senate hardliner Trent Lott (R- Mississippi) and Blue Dog Democrat John Breaux (D – Louisiana), are turning their backs on big business in their own states and hanging out with the cast of Gasland. Not bloody likely.
But that's not stopping Porter. In his press release he says the Russians are using the PR partnership not to get out from under pressing US sanctions for their illegal invasion of another country, but "to spread unsupported propaganda about the environmental and health risks of the practice of fracking."
Citing a dire warning he's already sent via a very serious letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Porter reveals that Moscow's "apparent strategy includes funding anti-hydraulic fracturing environmental organizations, placing misinformation in the public, and even mass media propaganda — namely their assistance with the distribution of Gasland, an incredibly deceitful film about hydraulic fracturing in America."
Porter uses wire reports about the PR firm's hiring to make explicit what RRC Commissioner Barry Smitherman only artfully hinted at in his letter to the marathon Denton City Council meeting in July over the debate on a fracking ban in that city – that US anti-fracking activists are being financed by the Russkies.
There's only one problem, none of the news reports about the hiring of the PR firm has mentioned fracking, even in passing. Even in footnotes.
To make that strained connection, Porter relies on an undated piece by one Keith C Smith who was with a think tank outfit called the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Smith cites nefarious Russian influence in Bulgaria's decision to ban fracking and German business ties to Russian gas to suggest that there's a master plan to leave Russia as the sole provider of natural gas to Europe and freeze out US imports.
Will you be at all surprised to learn that Mr. Smith has been "a consultant to several energy companies?"
To its credit, the Texas Tribune, which broke the story, asked Porter for specific examples showing Gazprom was funding anti-fracking efforts in America. Porter’s spokeswoman Mary Bell said in an email: There are multiple news reports citing Gazprom's influence and efforts in the EU and the US. Some are linked in the letter.” She means the Smith article, which shows absolutely no influence on US anti-fracking activities, and the news reports about the recent hiring of the PR firm to help the Russians avoid sanctions, but mentions nothing about fracking.
See how that works? First, we have a piece by an energy company consultant that says he strongly suspects Russian influence in the Bulgarian fracking ban, but can't prove it. Next, Gazprom hires a PR firm to avoid the repercussions of sanctions over the Ukraine invasion. Ergo, Russia's "influence and efforts in the EU and US" are plain as day.
When he was asked by the Tribune as to Russian influence in Denton's fracking vote, Porter spokeswoman Bell said that “the commissioner's comments are not specific to Denton,” but “Gazprom is spending tens of millions of dollars — that we know of — to eliminate competition globally. It's likely they've influenced much of the anti-hydraulic fracturing movement's message.”
Students of history know this is exactly how McCarthyism works – by innuendo instead of fact. Indeed, the Wikipedia definition of McCarthyism is "the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence." It also means "the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism."
Commissioner, have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
Here's a radio report by KUHF out of Houston that features DFW's own Rita Beving and Rep. Lon Burnam talking about the sorry state of IT at the Railroad Commission. You can't get a good map of a pipeline, look up violations, or report problems in a timely way. One of the RRC Commissioners themselves is quoted as saying their information technology is stuck in the mid-1990's. There was an important election around then that has had a big impact on how state government is run, but we can't quite recall…