Citizen complaints often draw attention to problematic operations that might otherwise go unmonitored for long periods of time. In Pennsylvania, complaints led to the discovery of at least 700 violations between 2007 and 2011. In Texas, 1,997 violations were found as a result of 681 citizen complaints in 2009, alone.
The Railroad Commission (RRC) has stated that “citizens are viewed as extra eyes to help the RRC identify problems. Yet the RRC does not consistently respond to violations identified from citizen complaints. For example, in 2009 RRC took enforcement action for just 4 percent (91) of the 1,997 violations found as a result of complaints. The Sunset Commission stated that this lack of consistency “can contribute to a public perception that the Commission is not willing to take strong enforcement action.” A 2012 Star Telegram editorial stated that “Too many people in Texas see the commission as a servant of and beholden to the oil and gas industry, not as a regulator on behalf of the people of the state.”
According to RRC, all citizen complaints are entered into a database that tracks and stores the complaint information, yet no publicly accessible electronic database of complaints exists on the RRC web site. Beginning in 2012, the legislature required the RRC to publish “quarterly trends of enforcement data, including the number of complaints received and how the complaints were resolved…” on its web site. Cumulative numbers from the first three quarterly reports are shown in the following table. Data from 2007, 2008 and 2009, gathered from other sources, are also included in the table.
Citizen do have the potential to be “extra eyes” for RRC, but to be more effective participants in oil and gas enforcement citizens need better access to information. While it is step forward for RRC to be publishing quarterly data on citizen complaints, mere statistics on complaints received and resolved shed very little light on the nature and severity of the problems that citizens are encountering, and whether or not there are patterns of problems occurring (e.g., certain operators that are frequently mentioned, regional hotspots, etc.). Other states provide detailed accounts of citizen complaints. For example, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s (COGCC’s) on-line information database enables the public to view all complaints filed with the COGCC. Information in the system includes a description of the complaint, information on the facility in question, and follow-up actions taken by the operator and COGCC.
Public access to RRC data confined to certain hours
According to the RRC web site: Beginning April 30, 2012, until further notice, the Drilling Permit (Form W-1) Application Query, Oil and Gas Completion Query and Production Report Query (Form PR) will be unavailable to users without RRC Online logins from 8:00 am – 11:00 am Monday – Saturday.
As of September 24, 2012 the site was still unavailable to the public during those hours.
Citizens can monitor problematic operations or operators, but at the present time it is difficult for the public to identify them. RRC does not have a database of inspections, violations or enforcement actions, so there is currently no simple way for the public to track and find detailed information on violations, enforcement actions and penalties related to oil and gas facilities in their neighborhood or state. Other states Other state agencies provide more information to citizens than the RRC. For example, Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Compliance Report and Colorado’s Oil and Gas Information System contain various types of information on inspections, violations, enforcement actions and complaints. The information is accessible to the public via online databases.
Rider 17 of the 2012-2013 General Appropriations Act required the RRC to publish enforcement data on its web site:
Out of the monies appropriated to the Railroad Commission of Texas for Strategy D.1.2, Public Information and Services, the agency shall publish information about enforcement data on its website, including inspection and enforcement activity, violations and the amount of final enforcement penalties assessed to the operator. The agency shall also make available on its website quarterly trends of enforcement data, including . . . the number and severity of violations sent for enforcement action, the number of violations sent for enforcement action for each Commission rule, and the number of repeat violations found for each operator.
To date, the RRC has been posting quarterly trends of enforcement data. But more detailed enforcement data has not yet appeared on the site.
The RRC should foster relationships with the public by ensuring that violations found as a result of citizens’ complaints receive consistent and strong enforcement. Moreover, to encourage public participation in oversight activities, RRC should increase transparency and public access to electronic oil and gas information on inspections, violations, enforcement actions, penalties and complaints. The system should allow users to view and download data in various spreadsheet formats.