Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton

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Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton

The Railroad Commission of Texas oversees the lifeblood of the state economy. (via Courtesy Ryan Sitton)

The Railroad Commission of Texas oversees the lifeblood of the state economy—the energy industry. The agency regulates the oil, gas and mining industries, and a three-member commission serves at the head. Each commissioner is elected in a statewide race and serves a full-time, six-year term.

Friendswood resident Ryan Sitton was elected during the 2014 gubernatorial election and is the first engineer to serve on the commission in 50 years. Sitton was the CEO of Pinnacle ART, which he founded in 2006, before stepping down to make his first foray into politics. He has nearly 20 years of oil and gas experience, previously working for companies, such as Marathon Oil and Occidental Petroleum. He is a Texas A&M University graduate.

Sitton’s term expires in 2020.

What is the role of a commissioner?

I’ll explain the three main things we spend time on.

One, we have to run the agency, so we’re like a three-member very active board of directors. The three of us really provide the strategic direction and policy decisions around the agency.

Job two is we’re like judges. When someone wants to drill a well or build a disposal facility and they ask for a permit, and then somebody else protests that permit, that is a contested case. Those contested cases get heard by our hearings division, and eventually all of those cases get heard by us.

Our third job is to communicate with the public. We spend a lot of time out talking to people in the public through the media or going out and speaking to chambers of commerce, to a Lions Club, speaking to a business group or a community event and talking about oil and gas, which is so important to our state that a lot of people are willing to listen.

How has your experience as an engineer helped you as a first-term commissioner?

The Railroad Commission is a true executive branch job. You have to run the agency, which is an 800-person agency at full staff. There, your leadership and executive experience comes into play very well in terms of how to do that. In addition, the Railroad Commission, which is entirely the oil, gas and coal mining regulator, deals with a lot of technical issues, from wellbore integrity to the cost of service in ratemaking cases to seismic analysis and rule changes; it’s all very technical. And here I am the first engineer in 50 years to serve as a railroad commissioner, and all of that technical background I’ve used almost every day.

The Railroad Commission is a bit of a misnomer. Have there been any internal talks to on renaming the agency?

So I do support changing the name. I think it’s a good idea. When we polled, we found out something like 90 percent of people in Texas don’t know that the Railroad Commission’s primary job is oil and gas. So I’d like to see a change in name. However, I can’t change the name. Only the Legislature can change the name.

As someone who has a big-picture view of the industry, do you think the industry is on an uptick?

I think we have seen the worst part of this downturn for the short term. I believe from an oil price perspective, we’ll stay around the $60 a barrel range for most of 2017. There may be a possibility that it may extend to future years, but it remains to be seen how well people comply. If the recent Organization of the [Petroleum] Exporting Countries—OPEC—deal that was struck in November, if they maintain compliance, then I think we can maintain that $60 a barrel range, maybe even for three years.

How does the agency interact with the industry from the oil field to the corner office?

If you want to drill a well in Texas onshore or you want to build a pipeline or you want to build some sort of disposal facility, you have to come to the Railroad Commission to get a permit to do that. Even after you get that permit, you have to follow the rules for how you do those things. Those rules are generated by our technical staff. Eventually, all rules are voted on and approved by commissioners. And then, finally, we inspect wells and pipelines.

How will the commission be involved this legislative session?

Two areas that we will be affected by or interact with the Legislature on: One is on the sunset commission. Another way we’d be involved in the legislative session is we have to get our budget approved. We have to ask for the money we need to do our job.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Sunset Advisory Commission

The 12-member commission is tasked with regularly assessing state agencies to determine whether to terminate an agency. The commission is founded on the idea that each agency should have a necessary function.

The Railroad Commission of Texas underwent its Sunset Commission review in 2016, and the results of that review were published in November. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Develop a strategic plan for effective monitoring and enforcement in the agency’s oil and gas division.
  • Accurately track and report oil and gas violations annually.
  • Systematically track major violations.
  • Enforce damage prevention requirements for interstate pipelines.
  • Implement a pipeline permit fee.
  • Implement findings from  The University of Texas into rules or guidance that prevent any induced earthquakes caused by disposal wells.
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