The Railroad Commission has no authority over trains. Even really old ones like this.

When Texas lawmakers failed to adopt Senate Bill 655 during the most recent legislative session, they failed to adopt a common sense reform first proposed more than 30 years ago.

SB 655 was an omnibus Texas Railroad Commission bill. It spelled out various changes to the agency, and would have reauthorized its operations for the next 12 years. SB 655 would also have changed the agency’s name.

Why is this important? Because unbeknownst to many Texans, the Railroad Commission has absolutely nothing to do with railroads. The agency possesses regulatory responsibilities pertaining to uranium mining, natural gas production, and home heating rates. But it lost the last of its railroad authority in 2005.

Without a doubt, this misleading name has made the agency less accountable. Even candidates for the Railroad Commission have mistakenly insisted that the agency oversees railroad service, and erroneously denied that the agency has control over home gas utility rates.

Under SB 655, the Texas Railroad Commission would have become the Texas Oil & Gas Commission. Unfortunately, lawmakers failed to pass this bill before a statutory deadline, and so SB 655 died at the end of the 82nd Legislative Session on May 30th.

Texas Observer, April 13, 1979

In 1979, then-Rep. John Whitmire proposed similar legislation to remove the word “Railroad” from the agency’s name, and instead change it to the “Texas Energy and Transportation Commission.” We’ve reproduced a excerpt from an old Texas Observer article about Whitmire’s proposal, at right. That the industry managed to kill that bill and others like it over the last 30 years constitutes prima facie evidence that it benefits from the confusion.

SB 655 was known as a “Sunset” bill, meaning that it was the product of an agency examination by the Sunset Advisory Commission. Because of the failure of SB 655, lawmakers are expected to consider a new Railroad Commission Sunset bill in 2013, during the next legislative session. Let’s hope that with the new bill comes a new name for the agency.