CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
That’s because the agency in charge of regulating Texas’ oil and gas industry has barred its staff from talking to the media, instituting a policy that instead funnels all media requests through a spokesperson, who doesn’t allow reporters access to agency officials. As the AP reports, the Railroad Commission of Texas, which is one of the largest state agencies of its kind in the country, approved a policy barring staff from talking to reporters in August, about a year after the agency’s new executive director Milton Rister, a former aide to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, took office. A spokesperson for the Railroad Commission of Texas told the AP that the decision to bar staff from media interviews came from Rister. Before Rister took office, the AP reports, Railroad Commission staff were regularly available for interviews.
According to the AP, the Railroad Commission policy states that if a staffer is given permission to do an interview, “the employee shall be responsible for any misinformation, misquotes, misinterpretations or misrepresentations conveyed by the employee. Failure to comply with this policy could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”
Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said he thinks the agency’s policy raises red flags on whether the leadership of the Railroad Commission is worried that its staff might disclose some “uncomfortable truths” about oil and gas drilling in Texas to the media. Texas has experienced “enormous” growth in oil and gas drilling over the last few years, he said, with oil and gas production doubling in the last six years.
“Now more than ever it’s critical that government regulators are transparent in how they’re dealing with this boom,” he said.
Last month, the Railroad Commission found that there wasn’t enough evidence to tie an increase in methane contamination of private wells in Texas over the last few years to gas production in the region. The agency said it won’t investigate the case further, even though previous studies have suggested the methane contamination could be tied to oil and gas activity.
When a state agency releases findings like this — ones that appear to contradict previous studies on the same subject — it needs to make its staffers available to explain to the media how it came to its conclusion, Metzger said.
“It’s just bad government to not let members of the public and the media interview taxpayer-funded staff,” he said.
Metzger said Environment America will be launching a petition to try to get the Railroad Commission to reverse its policy.
As energy development booms in Texas, the state has been in the spotlight in recent months for how little it knows about the environmental impact of its fracking and drilling boom. An eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Weather Channel found in February that Texas is failing to adequately monitor the emissions from the Eagle Ford shale play, one of the most active drilling sites in the United States. According to the investigation, thousands of oil and gas facilities aren’t required to report their emissions data to the state, and instead are allowed to self-audit their emissions.
As oil and gas development booms in Texas, so does pollution — the investigation found that the state has experienced a one-hundred percent increase in “unplanned, toxic air releases” from oil and gas production since 2009. Residents who live close to gas wells have complained of health problems — one resident profiled by the investigation, who lives within 2.5 miles of 50 wells, said she can’t sit on her porch some days and that her eyes burn and head regularly aches.
Railroad Commission spokesperson Ramona Nye said in an email to ThinkProgress that the media policy was put into place in August 2012 — before Milton Rister took office, and not after, as the AP reports.