Texas oil and gas regulators broke state law earlier this year when they suspended some of their environmental rules in an effort to help oil and gas companies survive the oil price crash, according to landowners and a nonprofit government watchdog.
The two ranch owners, backed by the Texas chapter of Public Citizen, say in a lawsuit that the state Railroad Commission’s action, which happened during a debate on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and the recession, violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The commission voted May 5 on a package of rule changes that were suggested by oil and gas trade groups. The public wasn’t given adequate notice about which rules were under consideration, which kept landowners from voicing any objections, and could allow oil and gas companies to cause pollution with impunity, the lawsuit alleges (Energywire, May 6).
“One of the first lessons our parents ever taught us was, if you make a mess, you clean up your mess,” Hugh Fitzsimons, a rancher in Dimmit County, Texas, who serves on the board of his local groundwater conservation district, said during a webcast news conference. “You cannot use the coronavirus as an excuse for not doing what you are required by law to do.”
The rule changes came after the Railroad Commission considered, but rejected, the idea of imposing mandatory production cuts across the oil industry to help stabilize prices. Instead, the state energy regulator adopted a series of recommendations from the Texas Oil & Gas Association and other trade groups, which included suspending a requirement that requires idle wells to be plugged within a year, and another that restricts underground oil storage facilities to salt caverns.
The Texas Open Meetings Act requires state agencies to post detailed information before any potential votes at least three days ahead of time. The commission’s agenda for the May 5 meeting said it was considering responses to the pandemic “including but not limited to (1) potential waiver or suspension of applicable statutes, rules, final orders, or other regulatory requirements.”
The agenda provided no other details and didn’t say which rules were under consideration for changes.
Molly Rooke, whose family owns a ranch near Refugio, Texas, said she would have attended the meeting and protested if she had known details about the rule changes. Like Fitzsimons, she’s a plaintiff in the case and has had to deal with blowouts and other problems stemming from unplugged oil and gas wells on her property. She said waiving the plugging requirement will likely allow other producers to walk away from wells without plugging them.
“If contamination happens, there’s nothing you can do to go back and fix it,” Rooke said.
Jennifer Riggs, an attorney who is representing Public Citizen and the landowners, said the commission exceeded its authority, since the timeline to plug wells is set by state law.
“What they cannot do is ignore the statute — the statute says an inactive well has to be plugged,” Riggs said.
A spokesman for the Railroad Commission, R.J. DeSilva, said in an email that the changes “were approved in accordance with the open meetings act, state and federal law, and Commission rules.”
Railroad Commission Chairman Wayne Christian said in a statement that the lawsuit before the Travis County District Court “is no more than a proxy for fringe extremists to advance their goal of eliminating the domestic production of fossil fuels.”
The Railroad Commission, whose three members are elected statewide, has a checkered history with the open meetings law. Some Texas agencies, including the Commission on Environmental Quality and the Public Utility Commission, supplement their agendas by providing internet links to background material about their upcoming votes.
But the Railroad Commission does not, and it has sometimes refused to provide that material ahead of its meetings.
In 2017, the commissioners forced the agency’s executive director to resign without taking a public vote or providing advance notice of the decision (Energywire, Sept. 20, 2017).
One of the commissioners complained to the state attorney general at the time, but no action was taken (Energywire, Oct. 31, 2017).