Roughly five months into the most deadly and contagious viral pandemic in over a century, the Railroad Commission of Texas, the regulatory and enforcement agency that is in charge of our state’s oil and gas industry, misused a March 16 emergency order by the governor that suspended portions of the Open Meetings Act to suspend environmental rules that were designed to protect Texans.

Among the rules suspended was the requirement of oil and gas operators to plug abandoned wells and remediate waste pits that contain toxic substances. To help oil producers that have been left with far more crude oil than can be used, the industry is now allowed to store oil in underground structures other than salt domes. These structures are not certified as being safe and pose an extreme risk to the public and the environment.

If we had adequate notice of what was being proposed, ranchers would have asked to be heard and explain why this is bad policy. But the notice posted by the railroad commission did not explain the changes that were being proposed and changes were approved by the commission before the public had a chance to review. 

According to its website, the railroad commission’s mission is “is to serve Texas by our stewardship of natural resources and the environment, our protection of personal and community safety, and our support of enhanced development and economic vitality for the benefit of Texans.”

By my count they have gotten one out of three. 

There are over 6,200 orphaned oil and gas wells in our state that are in immediate need of plugging. This is critical because orphaned or abandoned wells pose a very real risk of contaminating groundwater when the tubing in the wells fail and hydrocarbons migrate into the groundwater that is used for drinking and agriculture.

Since Spindletop, the massive East Texas oil well that ushered in the industrial hydrocarbon age, our state has become a veritable pincushion of production. As of 2016, there were over 500 direct incidents of groundwater contamination from oil and gas, and now the railroad commission wants to reward industry by giving them a free pass and placing the burden on the environment and the public.

When George Mitchell perfected his hydraulic fracturing formula, it ignited a boom that enabled Texas to become the single largest producer of oil in the world. Just before he died Mitchell lamented that he knew headstrong and big promoter type oilmen would let fracturing get away from them and that a crash would be inevitable. And in April, when Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to put their foot on the neck of Texas oil, prices tumbled, coronavirus accelerated, and demand plummeted, going into a tailspin with no end in sight. 

Rather than follow the law and make the oil and gas companies clean up the old wells and waste pits, the railroad commission’s solution is to ignore the bad behavior and give the oil companies a free pass to avoid having to clean up the mess they have left behind. So permit me a little armchair psychology. They are the industrial equivalent of the highchair tyrant. The child who has never heard the word “no” and is now a teenager. So instead of taking away Junior’s car when he gets a ticket, Mom and Dad get him a hot rod so he can outrun the cops. The result is ranchers and taxpayers having to foot the bill to clean up the mess left behind. 

Fellow rancher Molly Rooke and I take seriously our obligation to be stewards of our family ranches and to protect the water we use daily from contamination resulting from messes left behind by the oil and gas industry. That’s not extremism, just common sense.  For that reason, and to protect the citizens of the state of Texas, Public Citizen along with myself and Rooke, filed suit to demand that the railroad commission do its job. 

We are asking the courts to make the railroad commission follow the law by posting the proposed changes to the rules, doing an analysis of the financial impact to the state of their proposal, and taking comments and holding hearings before deciding on whether to amend the rules. Oil and gas companies have made billions by being allowed to drill in Texas, and all we are asking is for them to live up to the bargain they made. All we are saying is do the thing that most parents tried to teach their children, “clean up your mess.” 

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Hugh Fitzsimons

Hugh Fitzsimons is a Dimmit County rancher, grandfather, and director of Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District.