The Texas surveillance group Public Citizen and two Texas landowners are suing the Texas Railroad Commission, the government agency charged with regulating the oil and gas industry, for illegally suspending government regulations to protect public health and the environment.
The case dates back to a May 5 hearing in which the Commission suspended four regulations in the oil and gas industry requiring the industry to plug oil wells and clean up oil and gas waste pits within a year of ceasing to operate. The regulations also impose fees and surcharges for certain industry practices and only allow oil and gas to be stored in underground salt formations.
Because of the Commission’s illegal actions, these rules are now effectively being repealed, causing untold damage to the environment and public health in Texas, according to a Public Citizen press release released Thursday.
“Why is it a priority to hand out handouts to polluters during a pandemic?” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “While Texans are preoccupied with COVID-19, the Railroad Commission has waived rules for oil and gas drills. Due to the low demand for oil and gas, some experts are predicting bankruptcies. This is the wrong time to forego requests for cleaning garbage pits and inactive wells. If companies are let off the hook and don’t clean up their mess, taxpayers will. “
Shelley’s group claims the commission circumvented numerous Texas laws, including laws setting emergency rules, the Texas Open Meetings Act and Administrative Procedures Act.
The lawsuit seeks to reverse the repeal of the rules and laws, republish the proposed measure, solicit and adopt public comments, and hold public hearings on the implications of these changes.
Molly Rooke, one of the plaintiffs, owns an old family farm near Refugio on the Texas coast. It claims it tried unsuccessfully to get the commission to close off and completely clean up the area around a blown oil well that released chemicals into the air and into nearby wetlands.
“When I saw the eruption, I tried to face the wind because the cloud that gushed out of the well smelled of volatile chemicals,” Rooke said. “We called the Railway Commission, but until the media interfered, they did nothing. They eventually came out and did a temporary shutdown, but that was before the May suspension orders. Now I wonder if they’re going to do anything at all. “
Hugh Fitzsimons, another plaintiff, is a partner in a buffalo ranch in Dimmit County on the Texas border and a member of the local groundwater protection agency. He claims to have more than 100 wells that need to be plugged.
“The Texas Railroad Commission’s suspension of well plugging is ruthless and irresponsible,” said Fitzsimons. “It’s a simple and irrefutable fact that once your water is contaminated, you don’t have a ranch.”
“These immediate legal measures protect the Texas Miracle while also helping to protect the environment,” said Wayne Christian, chairman of the Railroad Commission, in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “This complaint is just a proxy for fringe extremists to advance their goal of eliminating domestic fossil fuel production. That would destroy 3.2 million jobs, add $ 2,500 a year to energy and gasoline bills for American families, and cost Texas $ 1.5 trillion in GDP between 2021 and 2025. “