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The Secret Lives of Railroads

“The great truth of America,” John Oliver once said, is that “if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” 

Hello, Railroad Commission of Texas. 

Remember February, when a freeze – not even a surprise freeze – took down our state electric grid? Of course you do: Without warning, “rolling” outages left millions of us without power for days in snow-and-ice weather. Hundreds of people died. Politicians swore it’d never happen again.

What does any of that have to do with trains? Nothing. Nada. Bupkis.

So why are consumer watchdogs and Texas state senators discussing the freeze with the Texas Railroad Commission?

It’s because the Texas Railroad Commission doesn’t regulate railroads. It regulates oil and gas – including the natural-gas wellheads that froze when they should have been pumping natural gas to generation plants.

For once in this wretched Legislature session, the Texas Lege did the right thing: It instructed the Railroad Commission to require oil and gas producers to “weatherize.” (Meaning: Insulate. And stuff like that.) But the rules that the commission is now discussing include a big loophole: Producers can opt out, and lots of them probably would. 

Why on earth would the commissioners allow that? “The railroad commissioners have interests in these companies,” explains Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, a new watchdog group birddogging the Railroad Commission. “How can you expect them to hold those companies accountable when the people leading the agency are profiting from them?”

Consider the commission chair, Christi Craddick. Commission Shift reports that based on her 2020 filings, Craddick owns oil and gas assets worth at least $1.5 million. And according to the Texas Tribune, two gas producers that pay for use of the Craddick family’s land – XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, and Pioneer Natural Resources – reported equipment failures during the February storm. 

And how can you expect voters to hold the railroad commissioners accountable when most Texans don’t know what the railroad commission does? Its heinousness lurks underneath the commission’s dull name, a holdover from its 1891 founding. In actuality, the commission hasn’t regulated railroads at all since 2005. (They’re under the department of transportation.)

Despite repeated calls to change the name, Craddick has fought to keep it. You can’t help but suspect that the confusion is intentional: If voters don’t understand why they should care, they’ll tune out. 

And then we’ll be left in the cold.

Lisa Gray is the newsletter writer and podcast host for City Cast Houston. Sign up for it here.


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