Will TX railroad commissioner candidates make natural gas companies more transparent?

The Jan. 8 explosion at the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown Fort Worth left 21 injured — some critically with severe burns and traumatic brain injuries — and sparked questions into the safety and modernity of the city’s natural gas infrastructure.

Gas distributor Atmos Energy announced in the days following the blast that its gas lines and equipment did not cause the explosion. Gas is believed to have been the likely cause of the explosion, according to Fort Worth officials, and several plaintiffs in lawsuits filed in its aftermath have said they smelled gas on the day of the explosion. Atmos has been named as a defendant in several of those lawsuits.

In the course of its investigation, the Star-Telegram requested maps of Atmos’ gas lines and information on which lines have been updated to non-corrosive PVC piping. The company declined to provide the information.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, publishes well and compressor site locations on its Geographical Information System Viewer on its website, but the map does not show natural gas lines.

The Star-Telegram asked Texas Railroad Commissioner candidates what steps they would take to bring more transparency to the natural gas sector, which has long opposed it amid calls for more accountability. One organization committed to that goal, Commission Shift, has published a voter guide with candidate and election information.

Five Republicans and two Democrats will be on the ballot on primary Election Day, March 5. One Green Party and two Libertarian candidates will be voted on at their conventions in April.

The Star-Telegram asked the candidates if they would support making gas line maps public, if they would publicize information about updated lines and how they would improve safety in the natural gas sector.

Where the Republican candidates stand

Three of the Republican candidates for Texas Railroad Commissioner responded to the Star-Telegram’s inquiry.

A spokesperson for incumbent Christi Craddick said, “We are not going to answer hypothetical questions about potential regulations. However, you can look at Chairman Craddick’s record as one that promotes transparency and accountability.”

In an email exchange, he cited Craddick’s 2021 vote to fine Atmos the maximum penalty for a 2018 explosion in Dallas that killed a 12-year-old girl. The fine was for $1.6 million. Atmos’ revenue in 2021 was over $3.4 billion.

Keeping gas line maps secret is a matter of public safety, the spokesperson said.

“Disclosing the location of critical infrastructure requires a balance of what is in the public interest and concerns about public safety,” he said. “Some information in the wrong hands could be used by criminals seeking to do harm.”

Craddick’s Republican challenger James Matlock echoed her campaign’s concern for critical infrastructure security, but said there should be more transparency in the commission when it comes to gas lines.

In a phone interview, he suggested a color-coded system to show Texas residents which lines have been updated and which lines need replacing.

“We should have something like that to where if our inspectors have gone out and looked, you know, we mark it red, if it needs to be replaced,” Matlock said.

“But then the flip side of that, you know, one of my big things is security,” he said, noting his military service as a Marine. “ So if we put too much information out there for the general public to see, it opens up a whole new threat level to our critical infrastructure.”

Matlock’s primary concern with transparency in the natural gas industry is the use of third party inspectors, as many small communities are forced to do when state inspectors are not available. He would increase the number of state inspectors to cover more ground.

“Our inspectors are overloaded with the amount of work and the large territories that they’re responsible for, and they can’t get to everything they’re given,” he said.

Fellow Republican Christie Clark said she would work to make information like this more available to the public.

“Transparency is key,” she said in an email exchange. “The [Railroad Commission] has spent tens of millions on its website but the public still doesn’t have a reliable resource to research oil and gas infrastructure.”

Natural gas operators like Atmos have no incentives for maintaining accurate records, nor do they have consequences for not doing so, Clark said.

“The [Railroad Commission’s] lack of transparency in all areas, including handling regulatory matters in executive session needs to change,” Clark said.

Their Republican contenders Petra Reyes and Corey Howell did not respond to the Star-Telegram’s questions.

Where the Democratic candidates stand

Democratic candidate Bill Burch said he has no knowledge of security concerns with making this kind of information available to the public.

“Much like the rest of the Texas Railroad Commission decisions as of late there’s no interest in actually serving the general public’s interests in health, safety, or environment,” Burch said in an email exchange. “It’s in the best interests of the cities and counties to have reliable, easy to use systems to access the necessary information.”

Research has shown that gas leak explosions are on the rise nationwide.

To increase safety in the natural gas industry, Burch would first go after detecting and stopping leaks in gas infrastructure.

“Numerous technologies have been invented and developed for early warning, pressure drops, and abnormal conditions which do not seem of high importance to the [Railroad Commission],” he said, adding that he would shift the commission’s focus from “reaction mode” to one of prevention.

His contender Katherine Culbert did not respond to a request for comment.

How will other parties’ Railroad Commissioner candidates regulate gas companies?

Candidates for the Libertarian and Green parties will be on the ballot in the general election in November, but they will be chosen during their conventions in April.

Libertarian Lynn “Hawk” Dunlap said in a text message that he would “of course” regulate gas distributors like Atmos Energy in a way that forces them to make gas line maps and line updates public.

“All infrastructure needs to be mapped correctly and inspected frequently,” he said. “There is no reason why in highly populated areas these upgrades haven’t already been completed. This is just another example of the [Railroad Commission] favoring the industry they are supposed to regulate instead of working for Texans.”

With regard to the Sandman hotel explosion, Dunlap said it is “disappointing that disasters have to happen to make changes in how we regulate.”

His party contender Chris Fuller did not respond to a request for comment.

Running unopposed in his party, Green Party candidate Eddie Espinoza said in an email that “Atmos Energy should be required to disclose all safety information to the public, including which gas lines have been updated to non-corrosive PVC piping. We need regulations for Atmos and all gas companies to make their gas line maps publicly available.”

If elected, Espinoza said he would shift the commission’s focus from one of extraction and delivery to plugging and cleaning up “toxic wells.” He would also focus on inspecting and upgrading gas lines in places like Fort Worth and transitioning to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.