TRC's name questioned

Jan. 16, 2017
Foiled efforts so far to rename the Texas Railroad Commission remind this OGJ editor of a state antilitter campaign: "Don't mess with Texas." TRC may have the most colorful history of any state agency.

Foiled efforts so far to rename the Texas Railroad Commission remind this OGJ editor of a state antilitter campaign: "Don't mess with Texas." TRC may have the most colorful history of any state agency.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission in November 2016 declined the name-change idea, which was among several recommendations. Proponents believe a different name would clarify TRC's regulatory functions.

The TSAC staff recommended a name change to make it transparent that TRC regulates oil and natural gas rather than railroads. Some argue that the 125-year-old TRC should be called the Texas Energy Resources Commission.

The Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA) suggested the TRC name should be handled as its own legislation separate from legislation suggested by the TSAC.

"TXOGA supports the continuation of the Railroad Commission," TXOGA Pres. Todd Staples testified before a TSAC hearing in August 2016. He called the name-change recommendation detrimental.

"The Railroad Commission name change should be moved out of the sunset process," Staples said. "For the record, TXOGA is neutral on the name change."

The name change would require an amendment to the Texas Constitution because the document specifically names the agency by its existing name. Two thirds of lawmakers in the Texas state Senate and the Texas state House would have to approve the idea before putting it on the ballot for voters to decide.

Periodic suggestion

In 2015, proponents of a TRC name change suggested the Texas Energy Commission. Similar proposals came up in 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2013. But history, nostalgia, and concerns about possible unintended consequences derailed those attempts.

TRC shifted its focus from railways to oil and gas decades ago, a fact well known by political insiders and energy journalists but apparently not by the general public. TRC staffers sometimes get calls about problems with railroad crossings, which now fall under the Texas Department of Transportation.

TRC was founded in 1891 and one of its early jobs was to cut the rates that railroads were allowed to charge. A court battle ensued. The US Supreme Court in 1894 ruled that TRC was constitutional, which enabled lower rail rates to become effective.

Oil and gas

The Texas Legislature in 1917 designated oil pipelines as common carriers and give jurisdiction to TRC, which then regulated transportation. By 1919, TRC also was granted jurisdiction over oil and gas production.

Oil regulation really became important with the 1930 discovery of East Texas field. Many small independents raced to put up rigs. Derrick legs touched legs with other derricks. Each well was produced wide open. Concerns rose about the field's natural water drive as a result of production levels.

Unsurprisingly, oil prices slumped. TRC attempted to cut back production, which prompted litigation. Several years passed before courts and the Texas Legislature agreed TRC had the right to prorate production-to conserve the state's natural resources and prevent pollution.

TRC has maintained its role in regulating oil and gas, and the agency is recognized worldwide by those in the oil industry.

Today, TRC tracks oil production through district offices. TRC field inspectors visit wells across the state to ensure compliance with TRC rules and regulations. The agency still works to protect the state's water resources from damage by oil and gas activities.

Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian took his oath of office on Jan. 9. He joined TRC Commissioners Christi Craddick and Ryan Sitton.

About the Author

Paula Dittrick | Senior Staff Writer

Paula Dittrick has covered oil and gas from Houston for more than 20 years. Starting in May 2007, she developed a health, safety, and environment beat for Oil & Gas Journal. Dittrick is familiar with the industry’s financial aspects. She also monitors issues associated with carbon sequestration and renewable energy.

Dittrick joined OGJ in February 2001. Previously, she worked for Dow Jones and United Press International. She began writing about oil and gas as UPI’s West Texas bureau chief during the 1980s. She earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska in 1974.