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Texas Railroad Commission May Get New Name

Snow covered railroad tracks and signal. (credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

Snow covered railroad tracks and signal. (credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

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TEXAS (AP) – What is 120 years old, has nothing to do with trains, planes or automobiles and oversees a massive chunk of the nation’s oil and gas activities? The Railroad Commission of Texas — of course.

And now — after being turned down in two other state Legislative sessions — the agency responsible for overseeing more than 350,000 miles of pipelines and a massive gas boom is again trying to get its name changed to something more in line with its duties.

“We’re the worst-named agency in state government,” said Commission Chairman Michael Williams.

“I mean it does not depict at all what we do and it’s tremendously confusing to the public,” he added, sharing anecdotes of “dutifully listening” to people complain about the trains and then letting them down gently by saying, “sorry, I have nothing to do with the railroad.”

The Sunset Advisory Commission — a 12-member oversight committee that includes 10 state lawmakers — will vote Wednesday on recommendations for revamping the Railroad Commission, including changing the agency’s name to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Two other lawmakers are also drawing up legislation seeking a similar name change.

“The antiquated agency name does not reflect its current functions and confuses the public,” the commission wrote in a scathing report that also calls for a major overhaul of the agency’s structure.

The Railroad Commission was established in 1891 to oversee rates because of “a fear of Texans that those damn Yankees would raise the rates and Texans would not be able to get their products to market,” Williams said.

Within a decade– when oil gushed from Spindletop in 1901 and the first major producer turned the Lone Star State into an energy giant — the commission began regulating aspects of the crucial, and volatile, industry. Since then, that role has grown, while the commission’s other job — overseeing railroad rates — shrank.

By the 1960s, the commission was almost exclusively dealing with oil and gas issues. In 2005, the last lingering tidbit of the commission’s authority over the railroad was officially transferred to the Department of Transportation.

Yet the Texas House — in 2005 and again in 2009 — failed to pass legislation that would change the commission’s name. Some House lawmakers, are simply reluctant to change a 120-year-old name. Others fear that because the Railroad Commission and its duties are in the state constitution, changing the name could open the door for revamping the agency, Williams explained.

Rep. Tom Craddick, a Republican who represents oil-rich Midland in West Texas, opposed the moves in the past and wonders now what the cost of changing the agency’s name would be.

“It’s the oldest state agency and if you mention the Texas Railroad Commission . . . people instantly know what the agency is,” Craddick said, though he has not made up his mind how he will vote this time around.

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