The Texas Railroad Commission (“TRC”), an agency that has suffered financial difficulties due to budget cuts and reduced revenues, recently received a budget increase of 46 percent ($79.6 million) in the recently ended legislative session. These budgetary increases will hopefully allow the TRC to improve upon their ability to be an effective resource for landowners and make pipeline data readily available to the everyday Texan. Pipeline construction often requires pipeline companies to use the power of eminent domain to condemn property, commonly referred to as a “taking.” Public access to information collected by the TRC is vital to keeping landowners aware of activities that could affect their property.
The budget increase follows a year that saw monthly budget cuts of over a million dollars, a hiring freeze, and the postponing of desperately needed technological updates. In light of these financial difficulties, the TRC was forced to limit their operations to two core functions, the permitting and inspection of wells. Another one of the TRC’s functions is the issuance of T-4 permits which grants pipeline constructors the common carrier status required to exercise the power of eminent domain. A vital component of fulfilling this function is to maintain a public database of pipeline easements in the State of Texas.
The increased funding is intended, in part, to improve programs for well plugging, oil field clean up, and pipeline safety by financing the hiring of additional staff. The TRC’s staff is capped at 827 employees. Presently, the TRC is roughly 150 employees short of that maximum number. Additionally, the TRC was granted one-time authorization to retain nearly $40 million in revenue collected through its administration of the Natural Gas Utility Pipeline Tax. Roughly $27.6 million of that money will also be used to hire additional employees. The remainder will be used to provide salary increases.
An additional purpose of the budget increase is to continue, and hopefully expedite, the drawn-out process of updating the TRC’s computers and digitizing decades of oil and gas records which include pipelines constructed with and without the power of eminent-domain in the State.
In addition to updating its computer systems and digitizing historical records, the TRC provides an interactive map, accessible to the public, that tracks existing and operational pipelines throughout the State. The data represented by the interactive map may not always be current. This ambiguity diminishes the capacity of Texans to appreciate the scope of pipeline activity and its effect on their lives and property. One day, perhaps, the TRC will expand the functionality of its interactive map to include planned pipelines. This would allow landowners to determine whether a project under development will impact their property.
Landowners, under both the U.S. and Texas Constitutions, are entitled to just compensation when their land is taken. These database improvements can help begin to level the playing field between landowners and powerful oil and gas interests by keeping landowners current on projects that could impact their property rights.
– Co-Authored by Graham Taylor and Justin Hodge