AUSTIN — The cozy relationship between state oil and gas regulators and the industry they monitor is typified by a revolving door of officials who leave the Texas Railroad Commission to lobby for energy companies, including several who recently departed and made six-figure salaries working the Capitol hallways last year.
The ties are seen in Railroad Commission policies that seek to shield the industry from further federal regulation, and top agency officials who beat back criticism from environmentalists on everything from seismic activity to fracking, the Austin American-Statesman reported Sunday.
Former Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman became a lobbyist and signed up two energy clients within four months of his state term expiring in January 2015, and also went on to work as an attorney at a firm that represents energy clients.
Other commission employees who worked just below the highest ranks found even more lucrative work. Three former chiefs of staff since 2010 have gone on to represent energy companies, including Amy Maxwell, who registered as a lobbyist within five days of leaving the Railroad Commission in 2013 and was paid as much as $585,000 last year, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings.
Maxwell said her work ranges from regulatory advice to her clients to helping them navigate the rule process at the agency. Chris Hose, who was chief of staff to former Commissioner Elizabeth Jones upon leaving the agency in 2010, made as much as $750,000 lobbying for energy companies last year.
Maxwell said agency rules insulate commissioners — the final decision-makers — from companies that have contested business before the agency. She can talk to commissioners about nonspecific matters, helping to arrange meetings between officials at the companies she represents and commissioners on broader issues.
While the relationships she forged at the commission help with her work, she said, “I don’t feel like I benefit as a lobbyist because I was a chief of staff. I do well because I can give advice that’s legal in nature but also because I work hard.”
When lawmakers mull new oil and gas regulation, industry representatives prefer that authority go to the Railroad Commission, which has shown it is sympathetic to business interests.
As evidence mounted in recent years that fracking-related activities have contributed to an uptick in seismic activity, lawmakers were under pressure from constituents to investigate the matter. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, injects a high-pressure mix of water, chemicals and sand underground to break open formations containing oil and gas.
One proposal directed the University of Texas to study earthquakes, but energy companies pushed back, asking for more involvement by the Railroad Commission.
The commission is currently being sued by a former inspector who claims he was fired for voicing concerns about the lax enforcement of environmental rules. A Railroad Commission spokeswoman said the agency is prohibited from commenting on personnel issues.
But commission leaders defend their record. Executive Director Kim Corley, who used to work for Shell Oil, says it’s important that agency officials understand the industry they regulate.
“I had retired and wanted to give back, to use my experience and leadership skills in a meaningful way,” said Corley, who had retired from Shell in 2015 when she was recruited by the Railroad Commission.
Information from: Austin American-Statesman.