by Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton
Earth Day is April 22nd this year, and I can’t wait to once again join tens of thousands of my fellow Texans at the largest Earth Day celebration in the world, in Dallas. You might find it odd that a Conservative Republican would be excited about one of the largest green events in the world, but I am a huge environmentalist. Most Republicans care deeply about our air, water and environmental quality, but many people don’t know that.
As a father, husband, private property owner and elected official, I know the health of our environment tomorrow is only as strong as our actions today. It’s important to me that at Texas’ energy regulatory agency, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), we work as if every day is Earth Day.
My view is that energy regulation should work in concert with environmental protection, not in conflict. For starters, you can’t drill a well or turnover a spade of dirt to produce energy without the permission of the RRC, through a strict and thorough permitting process. This means detailed plans on how an operator will prevent pollution, including how deep they can drill, and how much and where steel and cement are required in a well to ensure groundwater is kept safe.
For the men and women of the RRC, this duty is personal. When we act in the best interest of the 27 million people of the state, we are doing so for our friends, family and communities.
Every day hundreds of RRC inspectors fan out across Texas inspecting oil and gas wells, pipelines carrying crude oil or natural gas, and surface coal mines. In 2016 alone, our staff conducted 124,000 oil and gas inspections. Our inspectors look closely to make sure equipment is running properly, wells are drilled in compliance with rules set by the RRC, and operators have the necessary permits to legally produce or transport energy resources.
When an operator is not in compliance the RRC moves quickly to enforce our rules.
Punishments for non-compliance can vary, but all are intended to hold an operator accountable and protect the public. The RRC can, and does assess fines. In 2016, we assessed $8.6 million dollars in penalties on operators who violated our rules. We also sever an operator’s lease for continued non-compliance. That means they are not permitted to produce, transport or sell their product, effectively shutting them down. We issued more than 8,200 lease severances in 2016.
While some of our team at the RRC are working to protect the environment through proactive inspection and enforcement of our rules, others are working to return land used in energy production to its original condition, or better. Through site remediation, the RRC assists communities across Texas with land restoration. These programs turn old, unused and sometimes contaminated sites into thriving redeveloped or natural areas. For example, in 2016 our site remediation team helped turn a historic, abandoned oil field near Houston into the Turtle Bayou Nature Preserve. It’s now a 511-acre preserve providing a coastal wildlife habitat and protecting water quality.
These are just some of the ways all of us at the RRC work to protect our shared environment. No one in the state is more dedicated to protecting the public and the environment than the RRC. I look forward to talking with Texans more about our commitment to environmental protection on April 22nd at 10:30 a.m. at Earth Day Texas 2017. For those of us at the Railroad Commission, every day is Earth Day.