The Evolution of the Texas Railroad Commission and its Historic Dedication to Safety

AdobeStock 188245684
AdobeStock 188245684

In 1891, the Railroad Commission of Texas was created by the Texas Legislature to protect Texans from the flourishing railroad industry’s abuse of power and discriminatory rates through regulation. The Commission was Texas’ first regulatory agency and initially maintained jurisdiction over the rates and management of railroads, terminals, wharves and express companies. However, the oil and gas industry also prospered and gained prominence which necessitated legislative regulation.

In response, the Legislature passed the Pipeline Petroleum Law of 1917 expanding the Commission’s jurisdiction by proclaiming that oil and gas pipelines are common carriers. Essentially, pipelines and many railroads are common carriers because they transport goods for any person or company on regular routes at set rates. This law, consequently, provided the basis for the Commission’s present-day authority over Texas’ energy industry. Today, the Commission no longer has any authority or jurisdiction over railroads in Texas.

Over time, the Commission obtained increased influence over the oil and natural gas industry from the Texas Legislature. The Oil and Gas Conservation Law of 1919 notably broadened the Commission’s regulatory purview by allowing the Commission to regulate oil and gas production. As a result, the Commission enacted Rule 37, which was the first Statewide Rule to regulate the energy industry.

This Rule aimed to improve conservation and safety by requiring minimum distances between wells at drilling sites. Fifteen years later, the Texas Legislature provided the Railroad Commission with regulatory jurisdiction over “the purchase, transportation, sale and handling of the products, by-products and derivatives of crude petroleum oil and natural gas” (as described on the Commission’s website under the section of “History of the Railroad Commission 1866-1939”). Shortly thereafter, the Legislature adopted a detailed general oil and gas law in 1935 that prohibited wasteful operations and entrusted the Commission to put forth the essential measures to inhibit inefficient production. The early years of the Commission can thus be characterized by a steady increase in regulatory authority and interest in conservation within Texas’ energy production.

However, in 1937, the political landscape of Texas’ oil and gas industry dramatically changed due to one of the deadliest school disasters in U.S. history. The catastrophe took place during the afternoon of March 18 at a wealthy East Texas school in New London. The school, which had benefited immensely from the oil boom, routinely tapped into the waste gas pipelines of local oil fields for energy. While this practice was common, it proved deadly. The odorless, colorless gas had filled a crawl space beneath the school, and when the shop teacher, Lemmie Butler, turned on a sanding machine, an electric spark ignited the buildup of gas and caused a lethal explosion leveling the building and killing 294 students and teachers. As a result, the public demanded that the Texas Legislature and Railroad Commission develop and advance additional safety regulations.

A newspaper article from the Austin American-Statesman dated March 22, 1937, states, “After the house had promptly suspended its rules to allow introduction of his measure, Rep. Fred Knetsch of Seguin and others urged emergency action on a bill requiring the use of a malodorant in gas sold to the public. Knetsch declared the loss ‘of hundreds of innocent lives’ [in the New London School explosion] was apparently due to escaping or accumulated gas.”

Due to pressures from Texas constituents and several Representatives, the 45th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1017 “requiring the introduction of a malodorant agent in natural gas.” The Railroad Commission, in response to the Legislature’s actions, ordered the odorization of natural gas to prevent future disasters caused by undetected leaks. By enforcing this legislation, the Commission committed itself to protecting Texans from the hazards of the oil and gas industry and set an important precedent for future safety efforts.

Since the New London school explosion, the Railroad Commission has adopted several safety programs to protect constituents and the environment. In 1964, for instance, the Commission amended Statewide Rule 5 to demand that every operator must issue a plugging bond before drilling. This regulation guarantees that all abandoned wells are plugged, or sealed, to prevent water contamination.

Another notable success includes the Commission’s Underground Injection Control program, which is under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and targets Class II wells used to inject fluids associated with oil and gas activity. This program dictates that the brine and other fluids produced by oil and gas extraction must be injected deep underground in areas separate from sources of drinking water. Since brine often contains toxic metals and radioactive substances, this measure prevents extensive harm to public health and the environment. In fact, the Railroad Commission earned a commendation from the 2016 fiscal report of the Environmental Protective Agency for its efforts to protect Texas citizens’ health and preserve potable water.

Today, the Railroad Commission remains committed to ensuring the welfare of Texans. According to the Railroad Commission website, the Commission “serves Texas through [its] stewardship of natural resources and the environment; [its] concern for personal and community safety; and [its] support of enhanced development and economic vitality for the benefit of Texans.” Moreover, the recent revamp of the “Call Before You Dig” initiative further displays the Commission’s extensive dedication to safety. This campaign requests that all Texans who insert, move or remove any object from the ground follow Texas law and call toll-free 811 or 1-800-545-6005 at least 48 hours before digging to prevent hazardous pipeline damage. This call is free of charge, provides the service of marking utility lines and protects constituents from injury and expense.

Other safety efforts recently adopted by the Railroad Commission include the revision of Statewide Rule 13 (SWR 13), which regulates the cementing, casing and blowout prevention of wells, as well as the recruitment of a seismologist. At the beginning of 2018, the Commission notified operators of changes to SWR 13 due to their relevance in cement calculations and washout factors. The revisions consider the differences in soil chemistry, conditions, and density across Texas and accordingly allow operators to manage wells on a case-by-case basis — as opposed to the previous catch-all system.

By permitting Commission inspectors to examine particular wells, SWR 13’s alterations prevent blowouts and leaks and achieve a higher standard of safety. Additionally, seismic activity in North Texas prompted the Commission to hire an expert seismologist to increase its understanding of earthquakes. The Commission, in response to the extensive seismological research, decided to reduce the amount of produced water pumped into disposal wells, which placed the safety of constituents above economic advantages. By persistently revising rules, extending consequential safety campaigns and proactively hiring key staff, the Railroad Commission has evolved and adapted to the changing needs of Texans and the oil and gas industry while maintaining its historic dedication to safety.

For more information about the “Call Before You Dig” campaign, visit About the author: Katie recently completed her freshman year at The University of Texas at Austin. She is triple majoring in Plan II Honors, Government and Philosophy. Katie is also the Co-Chair of the Undergraduate Research Committee for UT’s Senate of College Councils, a violinist in the Plan II Volunteer Chamber Orchestra, and an avid writer. You may contact Katie at [email protected].


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here