Who regulates the regulators?

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Published: Feb. 22, 2022 at 7:52 AM CST
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MIDLAND, Texas (KOSA) - The Texas primaries are March 1, and one of the most talked-about elections is the race for railroad commissioner.

A major portion of that publicity comes as the actions of current and past commissioners rise to public knowledge.

A series of 2021 reports from Commission Shift, a Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) watchdog, shows railroad commissioners get 2/3 of their campaign money from the operators they regulate. In Texas, this is completely legal. It’s also a clear conflict of interest.

So, now many Texans are wondering who regulates the regulators?

“They have a name that doesn’t suit their purpose,” said Virginia Palacios, Commission Shift’s Executive Director and co-author of the reports.

The RRC has long languished in obscurity, but recent reporting and environmental issues have brought the RRC under the microscope.

“A lot of people show up at the polls and think this institution has to do with railroads, and I think the railroad commissioners want to keep it that way,” Palacios said.

The RRC is charged with protecting Texas’ environment, community, and economic vitality via regulation of the oil and gas industry.

But according to Palacios, the RRC, from its confusing name to its recent actions, is actually working against Texans.

“There seems to be a lot of disregard for landowners, a lot of disregard for the community,” Palacios said. “And there’s not really anybody looking out and making sure things are being done the right way.”

The actions have been flashy enough to pull the RRC out of its dark corner of the Texas government.

Up for re-election this year, Commissioner Wayne Christian recently received $100,000 just days after the RRC approved a waste disposal site its own examiners said posed a serious threat to a nearby aquifer.

Perceived corruption has become the centerpiece of the 2022 RRC election. With three different Republican candidates slamming Christian repeatedly.

“Look at the money people are taking,” said candidate Tom Slocum. “Look at the money Wayne is taking and judge for yourself.”

“You vote for somebody who is going to do the right thing,” said candidate Dawayne Tipton. “Not filling their pockets with cash.”

Of the three Republican challengers, Sarah Stogner has drawn the most attention to the race through a nearly nude social media ad.

“It’s kinda sad to me that people are more enraged at me scantily clad on top of a pumpjack than they are at an incumbent taking a 100-thousand dollar campaign donation days after changing his vote on a toxic waste disposal,” Stogner said.

And yet, change could be difficult because the Texas House Energy Resources Committee that oversees the RRC also has a major conflict of interest.

“The issue we’ve identified is that Rep. Tom Craddick sits on the House Energy Resources Committee,” Palacios said. “His daughter was the chairman of the Railroad Commission. She’s still a commissioner at the Railroad Commission.”

The RRC also has a recusal policy in the event of conflicts of interest. Commissioners are supposed to recuse themselves when they have a vested interest in a case, but Palacios says the research shows that isn’t happening.

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