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The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC; also sometimes called the Texas Railroad Commission, TRC) is the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety, safety in the liquefied petroleum gas industry, and surface coal and uranium mining. Despite its name, it no longer regulates railroads.
Established by the Texas Legislature in 1891, it is the state's oldest regulatory agency and began as part of the Efficiency Movement of the Progressive Era. From the 1930s to the 1960s it largely set world oil prices, but was displaced by OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) after 1973. In 1984, the federal government took over transportation regulation for railroads, trucking and buses, but the Railroad Commission kept its name. With an annual budget of $79 million, it now focuses entirely on oil, gas, mining, propane, and pipelines, setting allocations for production each month.
Attempts to establish a railroad commission in Texas began in 1876. After five legislative failures, an amendment to the state constitution providing for a railroad commission was submitted to voters in 1890. The amendment's ratification and the 1890 election of Governor James S. Hogg, a liberal Democrat, permitted the legislature in 1891 to create the Railroad Commission, giving it jurisdiction over operations of railroads, terminals, wharves, and express companies. It could set rates, issue rules on how to classify freight, require adequate railroad reports, and prohibit and punish discrimination and extortion by corporations. George Clark, running as an independent "Jeffersonian Democratic" candidate for governor in 1892, denounced the TRC as, "Wrong in principle, undemocratic, and unrepublican. Commissions do no good. They do harm. Their only function is to harass. I regard it as essentially foolish and essentially vicious." Clark lost the 1892 election to Hogg but a federal judge ruled the TRC illegal; the judge in turn was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. The governor appointed the first members but in 1894 it became elective, with three commissioners serving six-year, overlapping terms. The TRC did not have jurisdiction over interstate rates, but Texas was so large that the in-state traffic it regulated was of dominant importance.
Senator John H. Reagan (1818-1905), the first head of the TRC (1891-1903), had been the most outspoken advocate in Congress of bills to regulate railroads in the 1880s. He feared the corruption caused by railroad monopolies and considered their control a moral challenge. His advocacy of legislation was based on an emotional response to real and imaginary evils. However as chairman of the TRC, he changed his views when he became acquainted with the realities of the complex forces affecting railroad management. Reagan turned to the Efficiency Movement for ideas, establishing a pattern of regulatory practice that TRC used for decades. He believed that the agency should pursue two main goals: to protect consumers from unfair railway practices and excessive rates, and to support the state's overall economic growth. To find the optimal rates that met these goals he focused the TRC on the collection of data, direct negotiation with railway executives, and compromises with the parties involved. The agency did not have the legal authority to set rates, nor did it have the resources to spend much of its time in court battles. The carrot was far more important than the stick. Freight rates continued to decline dramatically. In 1891, a typical rate was 1.403 cents per ton mile. By 1907 the rate was 1.039 cents – a decline of 25%. However the railroads did not have rates high enough for them to upgrade their equipment and lower costs in the face of competition from pipelines, cars and trucks, and the Texas railway system began a slow decline.
From the 1890s through the 1960s, the Texas Railroad Commission found it difficult to enforce fully Jim Crow segregation legislation. Because of the expense involved, Texas railroads often allowed wealthier blacks to mix with whites, rather than provide separate cars, dining facilities, and even depots. In addition, West Texas authorities often refused to enforce Jim Crow laws because few African Americans resided there. In the 1940s, the railroad commission's enforcement of segregation laws began collapsing further, in part because of the great number of African American soldiers that were transported during World War II. The trains were integrated in the early 1960s.
The agency's reach expanded as it took over responsibility for regulating oil pipelines (in 1917), oil and gas production (1919), natural gas delivery systems (1920), bus lines (1927), and trucking (1929). It grew from 12 employees in 1916 to 69 in 1930 and 566 in 1939. It does not have jurisdiction over investor owned utility companies; that falls under the jurisdiction of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.
A crisis for the petroleum industry was created by the East Texas oil boom of the 1930s, as prices plunged to 25 cents a barrel. The traditional TRC policy of negotiating compromises failed; the governor was forced to call in the state militia to. Texas oilmen decided they preferred state to federal regulation, and wanted the TRC to give out quotas so that every producer would get higher prices and profits. Pure Oil Company opposed the first statewide oil prorationing order, which was issued by the TRC in August 1930. The order, which was intended to conserve oil resources by limiting the number of barrels drilled per day, was seen by small producers like Pure as a conspiracy between government and major companies to drive them out of business and foster monopoly in the oil industry.
Ernest O. Thompson (1892-1966), head of the TRC from 1932 to 1965, took charge of the agency and indeed the oil industry by appealing to an ideal of Texas' role in the global oil order—the civil religion of Texas oil. He cajoled, harangued, and browbeat recalcitrant producers into compliance with the TRC's prorationing orders. The New Deal allowed the TRC to set national oil policy. As late as the 1950s the TRC controlled over 40% of United States crude production and approximately half of estimated national proved reserves. It served as a model in the creation of OPEC. Gordon M. Griffin, chief engineer of the TRC during World War II, developed the formula for prorationing to keep production flowing for the military.
Regulation was a practical rather than ideological affair. The TRC typically worked with the regulated industries to improve operations, share best practices, and address consumer complaints. Radical activities like rate setting to favor shippers or producers or consumers, and heated court battles, were the exception rather than the rule.
Within the oil and gas industry, it took into account production in other states, in effect bringing total available supply, (including imports, which were small) within the principle of prorationing to market demand. Allowable oilfield production was calculated as follows: estimated market demand, minus uncontrolled additions to supply, gave the Texas total; this was then prorated among fields and wells in a manner calculated to preserve equity among producers, and to prevent any well from producing beyond its Maximum Efficient Rate (MER). Scheduled allowables are expressed in numbers of calendar days of permitted production per month at MER. In the Spring of 2013, new hydraulic fracturing water recycling rules were adopted in the state of Texas by the Railroad Commission of Texas. The Water Recycling Rules are intended to encourage Texas hydraulic fracturing operators to conserve water used in the hydraulic fracturing process for oil and gas wells.
The three-member commission was initially appointed by the governor, but an amendment to the state's constitution in 1894 established the commissioners as elected officials who serve overlapping six-year terms, like the sequence in the U.S. Senate. No specific seat is designated as chairman; the commissioners choose the chairman from among themselves. Normally the commissioner who faces reelection is the chairman for the preceding two years. As of January 2013, the commission members are Barry Smitherman, David J. Porter, and Christi Craddick. All three members are Republicans. Current chairman Smitherman was appointed in July 2011 to fill the vacancy following Michael L. Williams' resignation from the commission in March 2011. In the general election held on November 6, 2012, Smitherman was elected to fill the two years remaining in Williams' former term. Governor Rick Perry appointed Buddy Garcia of Austin as the interim commissioner in April 2012 to fill the vacancy created two moths earlier by the resignation of Elizabeth Ames Jones, but Garcia did not seek election to the full six-year term. Craddick then won the six-year seat that Jones had vacated in the same general election in which Smitherman won the two-year term. Meanwhile, Smitherman will leave the commission no later than January 2015; he is a candidate for Attorney General of Texas in the Republican primary scheduled for March 4, 2014.
Effective October 1, 2005, as a result of House Bill 2702 the rail oversight functions of the Railroad Commission were transferred to the Texas Department of Transportation. The traditional name of the Commission was not changed despite the loss of its titular regulatory duties.
The Shreveport Rate Case, also known as Houston E. & W. Ry. Co. v. United States, 234 U.S. 342 (1914) arose from the Railroad Commission's setting railroad freight rates unequally. Because of the low intrastate rates, shippers in eastern Texas tended to ship their wares to Dallas (in Texas), rather than to Shreveport, Louisiana, although Shreveport was considerably closer to much of eastern Texas. The Railroad Commission's (and the railroad's) position was that only the state could regulate commerce within a state, and that the federal government had no power so to do. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government's ability to regulate interstate commerce necessarily included the ability to regulate intrastate "operations in all matters having a close and substantial relation to interstate traffic" and to ensure that "interstate commerce may be conducted upon fair terms".