As gas wells are drilled in McAllen and surrounding areas, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals and the pipelines that will feed them are proposed for Brownsville and Port Isabel, the regulators that oversee the oil and gas industry in Texas become increasingly important.

After all, emission and leaks, whether intentional or accidental, could have serious impacts on both human health and the environment. A major leak, explosion, or LNG pool fire could prove catastrophic for nearby residents.

Lon Burnam
Lon Burnam

Serious accidents at gas facilities in Texas are not especially rare. Last October a pipeline facility southwest of San Antonio exploded, erupting in flames. A pipeline in another part of the state blew up in December. And in early January a natural gas pipeline in Robertson County ruptured, setting off an explosion that shook houses 30 miles away.

We need a cop on the beat to look out for Texans, one that is both competent and honest.

Instead, we have the Texas Railroad Commission.

The Commission’s misleading name is the first sign that something is not right at Texas’ top oil and gas regulator. The Railroad Commission has no authority over railroads. And its three current commissioners are not particularly interested in exercising regulatory authority over oil and gas companies either.

Instead, they seem to see the oil and gas industry as their boss, rather than the Texans who pay their $115,000 annual salaries.

Commissioner Ryan Sitton was elected in 2014. Before his election he founded PinnacleAIS, an oilfield equipment company whose clients include Valero, Marathon and Chevron. Campaign finance reports showed that oil and gas industries donated $137,000 to his bid to be one of Texas’ top oil and gas regulators. During his campaign Sitton raised a few eyebrows when he announced that he would continue to do work for these companies even after joining the Railroad Commission, despite the apparent conflict of interest.

Commissioner Christi Craddick is the daughter of Tom Craddick, 23-term Texas state representative and former Speaker of the House. Like Sitton, she has strong ties to the industry that she was elected to regulate, with investments in oil and gas companies including ExxonMobil and Whiting Petroleum.

When Denton residents voted to enact a ban on fracking within city limits in an effort to stave off pollution and property damage, Craddick immediately announced that the Railroad Commission would ignore the will of the people and continue to issue permits for fracking in Denton. Craddick told the Dallas Morning News that, “I believe it’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s. … We’re going to continue permitting up there because that’s my job.”

When the Texas state legislature passed HB 40, the infamous ban on fracking bans that overrode Denton’s effort to protect its citizens, Craddick said, “I applaud Gov. Abbott, Chairman Fraser, and Chairman Darby’s leadership and steadfast work in signing HB 40 into law today, providing greater certainty for Texas business and assured regulatory expertise from the Railroad Commission for all Texans.”

All Texans – except for those who live in Denton, or Texas cities like McAllen that are riddled with gas wells.

Really, just those Texans who happen to own an oil or gas company.

The third Railroad Commissioner, David Porter, who ran an accounting firm whose clients included oil and gas companies, is stepping down.  This opens up the possibility that we might actually elect a new regulator who believes in regulating, in working to protect the health of Texas residents even when taking steps to avoid gas leaks and pipeline explosions proves inconvenient for oil and gas companies.

As soon as Porter announced that he would not run for re-election Lon Burnam stepped up to take his place. If Texans elect Burnam, a long-time state Representative with no oil and gas industry ties, it would mark a seismic shift in the Railroad Commission’s makeup.

Lon Burnam is a longtime critic of the Railroad Commission, calling it a “captured state agency” whose leadership is focused on pleasing the industry rather than ensuring that it obeys state laws and regulations. He says that he wants to make “safety and science” – the protection of Texas residents and honest assessments of the health and environmental impacts of oil and gas operations – the basis for all of the Railroad Commission’s actions.

Burnam will first need to win the March 1st Democratic primary, and in that effort he has already been endorsed by Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, as well as Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club. Burnam has not received endorsements, campaign contributions, or other support from industries that the Railroad Commission regulates.

With oil and gas companies eyeing the communities of the Rio Grande Valley for more drilling, a slew of major pipelines, and a massive LNG export complex, Valley residents desperately need an independent regulatory agency that will work for the people, not the companies. It’s time for the Valley to flex its electoral muscle to make this happen.

You can meet Lon Burnam and find out more about the authority and jurisdiction of the Texas Railroad Commission Monday evening, February 1 at 6:00 pm at Poncho’s Norte 4300 N. Col. Rowe in McAllen.