Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sunlight shining on the Sunset Commission.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission is either making friends or cultivating enemies, depending on your feelings toward The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the The Texas Railroad Commission, the subject of the commission's two most recent reports.

The immediate take-away from both reports is that the folks over at Sunset Advisory feel that the two Commissions need to do a better job enforcing the rules and regulations pertaining to the industries over which they are charged. For the TCEQ it sort-of ends there. Oh sure there's a lot of wordiness to be found in 124 pages but, for the most part, the TCEQ got off with a stern scolding and advice to do better....pending the outcome of a current audit and several legal dust-ups with the EPA that is. Kate Galbraith* of the Texas Tribune (apparently, wearing no hip eye wear) offers up her take on the report choosing to focus on the side-stepping of the EPA issue by Sunset Advisory.

Of more interest, to me, was the Sunset report on the Texas Railroad Commission. Most surprising was Sunset Advisory's suggestion that the Commission move from elected positions to those of gubernatorial appointment. This was especially curious on the heels of the latest gubernatorial election, where one of Democrat Bill White's campaign arguments was that incumbent Rick Perry had grown too powerful due to the power of appointment.

Despite the fact that there's not much they can do about it, I cannot imagine Democrats would welcome this new power vested in a candidate they can't seem to beat, and who doesn't seem to be inclined to go anywhere. One concern that I have is the potential for political chicanery in a commission that's responsible for the biggest chunk of Texas' economic pie. Yes, political elections are imperfect, and sometimes (as in 2010) there's a head-scratcher of a result that puts a relative novice in a position of authority. This is a weakness that appointments cannot fix. The main difference is the voters would have a chance to fix their error, should one occur, within four years. With appointments the appointed can often fly under the radar, held unaccountable to the voters. Still, appointed wouldn't be that bad if the terms were kept relatively short and bad actors could be flushed from the system immediately.

One other benefit of staggered elections is this: It becomes very difficult for the RRC to change focus quickly, needing at least two election cycles to change the make up, plenty of time for the citizens to right the wrongs. Currently the RRC is one of the more agreeable regulatory organizations to deal with, although (contrary to news reports and partisans on the Left)they're still not pleasant. They're just less unpleasant than most. I would hate to see that change. I would also hate to see Texas' economic advantage suffer under a wave of industry-hostile appointments which decimate oil & gas production in Texas, we're already seeing just how much trouble that can cause in the Gulf.

There are other recommendations in the report including the cessation of propane marketing, an idea whose time has long passed. Again, Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune (Maybe she was edited by someone wearing hip eye wear?) has more.

One recommendation that I am in favor of is moving the regulation of gas utilities to the Public Utilities Commission. That just makes a lot of sense from a logistics standpoint. The RRC handles production, the PUC worries about distribution. That's a much more focused business model.

The last recommendation in place is one that, for sentimental reasons, I would be sad to see enforced, the proposed name change to The Texas Oil and Gas Commission would bring to an end a part of Texas history I don't want to see vanish. It'd be akin to changing the name of the Texas Rangers. Sometimes the old ways are the best.

*As the Texas Tribune notes, Gilbraith is a green energy writer and approaches the issue from a far different perspective than my oil & gas industry view. That's neither good nor bad, it just is. At least we both admit our bias on these issues.

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