Brown wants to change perception of ‘cronyism’ on TRC

By Brandon Evans | Published Wednesday, March 19, 2014

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Texas Railroad Commissioner candidate Steve Brown has a problem with the way the commission has handled the earthquakes in the Barnett Shale.

Steve Brown

Independent researchers place blame for the earthquakes that have rattled south Wise and north Parker counties on wastewater disposal wells, which are regulated by the TRC. Brown was in Wise County Monday visiting with local leaders about the issue.

“There is no evidence that they’ve handled it at all,” Brown said. “I understand they’ve put out a search to hire a seismologist to do a study at some point. But the way I would have handled it would be to enact a moratorium on injection wells clustered together in those counties. Then it puts an urgency on the agency to discover the answer.

“They wouldn’t be dragging their feet on this if they were getting calls every day from those operators wanting an answer.

“When we ignore these types of circumstances, we limit our ability to problem-solve. There is a solution there somewhere. Proximity to fault lines, proximity to homes, amount of water being injected – there’s an answer there somewhere, and we need to find it to apply best practices across the state.

“These issues will surface again in the Eagle Ford and Permian Basin. We need to find an answer. We’ve done ourselves a disservice by sticking our heads in the sand instead of finding solutions.”

Brown, who is from the Houston area, easily won the Democratic primary over Dale Henry. His Republican opponent in the November general election will be either Wayne Christian or Ryan Sitton – whoever emerges from the runoff.

“I think this position is one of most important in state government,” Brown said. “It’s easily one of most powerful state agencies. With Texas’ boom in oil and gas production, we’re on pace to produce more than some OPEC nations by next year. There’s clearly a lot of influence this position provides in shaping our energy policy moving forward.”

Brown started as a campus organizer for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, who challenged North Carolina’s Jesse Helms in 1996. He founded the North Carolina A&T State University chapter of College Democrats, and was later awarded an internship in the Clinton White House.

He has since worked on several campaigns and in the legislative offices of key local Democrats including U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, State Rep. Sylvester Turner and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

If elected to the three-member Railroad Commission, he hopes to balance the economic benefits of the oil and gas industry with environmental stewardship.

“Our goal is to think in terms of long-range forecasting, to create a sustainable environment where we can continue to benefit from this bounty of natural resources, but at the same time do that in a responsible manner – in a manner that protects the environment for now and the long-term and public safety,” he said. “Finding that balance in the agency is critical.”

While campaigning across the state, Brown has learned that many Texans identify the TRC as a crony of the oil and gas industry. He hopes to dispel that image, starting with campaign finance reform.

“The irony is the agency, when it was created in 1891, was one of first consumer advocacy agencies in the nation,” Brown said. “It was created to protect Texas landowners from overreaching by powerful railroad companies. It’s actually rooted in consumer and public advocacy and landowner rights.

“At some point, we’ve shifted this continuum all the way to the opposite side. The influence of the public in shaping policy goals and regulatory outcomes is lost. It’s been caught up in this web of cronyism in Austin. The way the organization is set up, the deck is stacked against regular Texans.

“We have to figure out a way to decentralize the agency and make it more accessible to people across the state. There is nothing partisan about a community not wanting an injection well located there if they have a case. But if they aren’t lawyered up, they are going to see a permit rubber-stamped nine times out of 10.

“I think common perception is that it’s a good-old-boy network,” he said. “It’s very crony-riddled.”

He said lax campaign finance laws have allowed TRC candidates’ campaigns to be funded by the very industry they are charged with regulating.

“I think that’s the case now, and that reinforces that idea of cronyism. Whether it has merit or not, it’s the perception – and you can’t change that until you have campaign finance reform.”

In the next few years the agency will go through the sunset process. Brown said this is good chance to implement some positive changes.

“In the term of the next commissioner, this will happen,” Brown said. “So the chance to improve some of the deficiencies through the legislative process is an opportunity I’ll have as a railroad commissioner.”

One of those deficiencies is funding. The agency has long been criticized for not having enough agents in the field to properly monitor the oil and gas industry.

“It is still funded as if no boom had ever existed,” Brown said. “We have the same amount of staff on hand today as before the shale boom.

“We are trying to regulate a 21st-century industry with 20th-century resources.”

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