Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Oil and Gas Politics in Texas—Get involved!

What folks need to know is that the Texas Railroad Commission is not really about rail roads but is rather the entity responsible for oil and gas in Texas.  Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club, indicates in his March 29, 2018 blog below that given our state's notoriously lax regulations of fossil fuel industries, we all need to make ourselves heard on their 2019 plan by April 20, 2018. 

I note this even as I read this really concerning piece titled, "Hurricane Harvey's toxic impact deeper than public told."  It informs us that "nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater mixed with storm water" in just one of these plants.

We as a public simply need to get more involved in getting the state to minimally monitor and enforce their own rules.  These companies do not want any regulation because of the desire for unbridled profit.  And this, of course, puts us all at risk.

Cutting and pasting from Cyrus' notice below, here is what you can do.

When’s The Deadline For Public Input?
According to their website, comments may be submitted online by 5pm on April 20, 2018. Be on the lookout for more information from the Sierra Club about how you can make your voice heard. 
If you want to get a head start though, you can complete their survey here. 
Comments may also be sent to: 
Oil and Gas Strategic Plan Comments/Oil and Gas Division
Railroad Commission of Texas
P.O. Box 12967
Austin, Texas 78711-2967 
Comments received by mail after April 20, 2018 may not be incorporated into the FY 2019 iteration of the plan but will still be reviewed.

Our children, grandchildren, and the unborn generations need for us to be involved.

-Angela Valenzuela

Quick Reaction - Railroad Commission Releases Hollow Enforcement Plan For Fiscal Year 2019, Asks For Your Help Making It Better

By Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director
As everyone knows, the Railroad Commission of Texas doesn’t regulate railroads. (We’re kidding. A lot of people don’t know this.) The name is strategically deceptive and the many attempts to change it to reflect what the agency does have failed every time. They provide statewide oversight of the oil and gas, pipeline, coal, and uranium mining industries through the enforcement of rules and regulations.
Let’s break that down.
Do they really enforce their rules? How would we even know? What exactly is its monitoring and enforcement plan for the Lone Star State’s powerful fossil fuel industries?
Well, we finally have the Railroad Commission’s official Annual Oil and Gas Division Monitoring and Enforcement Plan Well, it’s a draft plan for fiscal year 2019 (which begins on October 1, 2018). And guess what? They are officially asking for our input (and yours), and we plan to give it to them!
Now before you get too excited about the prospect for increased transparency, keep in mind that this seemingly sudden request for input only comes after years of public pressure culminating in legislative action in 2017 (in the form of the Railroad Commission of Texas Sunset Bill, HB 1818). As we widely reported, that bill fell short of public expectations of badly needed reforms at the agency, but one positive portion of the bill was the requirement that the RRC develop a publicly available enforcement plan with public input.
Specifically, the “Sunset” bill stated in the Natural Resource Code:
(a) The oil and gas division of the commission shall develop and publish an annual plan for each state fiscal year to use the oil and gas monitoring and enforcement resources of the commission strategically to ensure public safety and protect the environment.
(b) The commission shall seek input from stakeholders when developing each annual plan.
(c)  The commission shall collect and maintain information that accurately shows the commission ’s oil and gas monitoring and enforcement activities. Each annual plan must include a report of the information collected by the commission that shows the commission ’s oil and gas monitoring and enforcement activities over time.
According to this statute, the RRC must publish the final plan for the next fiscal year by July 1 of each year.
Why Is It So Hard For RRC To Do The Right (And Relatively Simple) Thing?
Let’s pause a moment for some context. The RRC has been routinely criticized, even by the Sunset Commission, for failing to have a comprehensive enforcement plan or strategy, to provide transparent data, and in many cases, to enforce the law. In response to pressure from the Sierra Club and others, the RRC has published quarterly and annual enforcement statistics on its website for several years. But these statistics can’t be filtered by company name or county. They are aggregated in a way that doesn’t show people who the bad actors are.
Furthermore, the official policy of the RRC is to help companies comply with the law, not to deter them from disobeying the law. Put simply, the RRC often cites companies for violations but rarely punishes them with major fines.
For example, in FY 2017, the RRC performed 116,019 inspections of oil and gas facilities, and found 44,578 violations, including 119 “major” violations. However, they only sent 1,309 of the alleged violations to their enforcement division, and a total of $5,048,940 penalties were assessed against these companies (an average of less than $4,000 per violation). That’s not even 3% of just the violations they recorded.
It is also difficult for the public to know the compliance histories of companies or wells, whether the RRC has resolved complaints against a particular company, or how many companies have actually lost their licenses for violations. Even the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), not a model agency by any standard, at least keeps a searchable database for violations available to the public, a way to track individual complaints, and a compliance history database.
It is also important to note that the Texas Legislature set the maximum fines for most oil and gas violations at $10,000 per day per violation.This seems like a lot of money, but considering it was set back in 1983, the cost is low by most regulatory agency standards. To put the scale of fines in perspective, since 2013, the Railroad Commission of Texas is allowed to set  maximum fines for violations for pipelines to as much as $200,000 per day for major safety and environmental violations, while both the TCEQ ($25,000 per violation per day) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (depending on the federal law can range from a maximum of $18,750 to as much as $93,750 for major Clean Air Act violations per violation per day) can levy much heftier fines.
The Texas Legislature would need to change statute to allow the agency to levy heftier fines for oil and gas producers. Unfortunately, efforts by the Sierra Club and our allies in the Texas House and Senate have been unsuccessful.  Why? The extremely wealthy and powerful oil and gas lobby is against it.
Still, the Commission could make changes to their penalty matrix, which sets maximum penalties for different types of violations, ratcheting up fines under the $10,000 cap. Operating a well after applying for a permit but haven’t actually received authorization? $5,000 slap on the wrist. Operating a well without even applying for a permit? $10,000. Failing to comply with tubing and packing requirements? $2,500. Failure to comply with surface casing requirements? $2,000. Failure to notify the Commission about an incident? Up to $5,000.
I know what you are thinking. Wouldn’t these low penalties actually encourage operators to violate the law and then just pay the penalty as a normal cost of business?  Yes, and that’s what the Sierra Club and others have argued for years: penalties are simply too low to get industry to comply with the law.
So What’s In The Plan?
As anyone can see here, the plan isn’t really that strategic. It’s more of an announcement of its basic goals for FY 2019, which include:
1) improving the accuracy of the Commission’s oil and gas monitoring and enforcement activities with better reporting; and
2) strategically using its resources to ensure public safety and protection of the environment.
Sounds great, but the plan lacks specific details. For example, the plan only states that it “anticipates” that 130,000 inspections will be conducted in inspections FY 2019, and that t it will strive to ensure that every inland well is inspected once every five years and every bay and estuary well once every two years.
While the plan does expand the RRC’s definition of what constitutes a “major violation” the plan does not discuss updating the Commission’s outdated penalty matrix for major violations. Thus, while it’s great that drilling or reentering a well without a permit will be considered a major violation, what’s not addressed is specifically how or whether the level of fines and penalties will be adjusted. And while the plan discusses the fact that the Commission “has a capital appropriation to continue its modernization with the Inspection/Enforcement Tracking and Reporting System,” the plan does not discuss what kind of additional information will be made available to the public itself. It certainly makes no specific commitment to making that information downloadable, accessible, or searchable.
What Will The Sierra Club Do?
We will be submitting extensive comments, but we will also ask our members to submit comments, especially those with any direct experience dealing with RRC’s enforcement -- or lack thereof. And we will let the Legislature know that this plan falls far short of what was expected of the RRC from the recently passed Sunset bill, even from our oil and gas-friendly legislators. Here are some key points we intend to make:
  • The strategic enforcement and monitoring plan must include basic goals for performance standards, such as number of wells to inspect and average fine per found violation;
  • An update of the agency’s penalty matrix, with increased penalties for repeat violators and for major violations;
  • An analysis of the economic benefits of non-compliance with penalty adjustments so that any economic gain received by a facility by not complying with the law should be added to the penalty;
  • An updated procedure for how complaints are handled and how information about resolutions of complaints are shared with the public;
  • The need to complete a downloadable, searchable enforcement database available through the website by next year
Monitoring and enforcement of the rules is a major issue . The Railroad Commission of Texas has failed to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to make sure our oil and gas companies are actually following the law.
When’s The Deadline For Public Input?
According to their website, comments may be submitted online by 5pm on April 20, 2018. Be on the lookout for more information from the Sierra Club about how you can make your voice heard.
If you want to get a head start though, you can complete their survey here. Comments may also be sent to:
Oil and Gas Strategic Plan Comments/Oil and Gas Division
Railroad Commission of Texas
P.O. Box 12967
Austin, Texas 78711-2967
Comments received by mail after April 20, 2018 may not be incorporated into the FY 2019 iteration of the plan but will still be reviewed.

No comments:

Post a Comment