Railroad agency's improper silence

Published on Saturday, 21 June 2014 21:35 - Written by

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is notorious for trying to control his own image. He makes hit-and-run appearances at Tea Party events and barnstorms through blue states advertising Texas’ business-friendly environment, but he grants few substantive interviews and he hates answering tough questions.

It now appears this weakness — for it is a weakness — is spreading from the head down. The Associated Press is reporting that a major state agency has forbidden its workers from even speaking to the press.

“Texas’ oil and gas regulatory agency has instituted a blanket policy barring staff members from doing media interviews, raising questions about transparency as the state grapples with the intricacies of one of the largest energy booms in decades,” the AP reports. “The Texas Railroad Commission, which has three commissioners leading one of the largest state agencies of its kind in the country, approved the policy in August, about a year after Milton Rister took over as the agency’s executive director. Since then, all media inquiries have been funneled through a spokeswoman who responds via email and bars any direct access to staffers.”

There are two important points here.

The first is that the Texas Railroad Commission isn’t just about railroads. As the AP notes, it controls the petroleum industry — the backbone of the state’s economy and the source of our current (relative) economic boom.

The issues the Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over aren’t just economic, although those are vital enough. There are also issues of public safety. Under the current policy, residents of Texas will never get to hear from a Railroad Commission scientist or engineer that a pipeline is safe, for example, or what the effects of new gas exploration might be. No expert will ever be on hand to assure them about a train derailment or an offshore well accident.

You see, the way it usually works — and the way it should work — is that an agency’s public information office serves as a conduit and a facilitator. The spokespersons are not experts themselves, but they know how to put a reporter together with an actual expert.

We see this already.

“When allegations of groundwater contamination from fracking have arisen, the Railroad Commission has refused to put its engineers and petroleum experts on the phone to respond to questions,” the AP explains.

Responses to any questions are emailed to reporters. And as the AP notes, “It is unclear who is answering the questions, where they rank in the agency and how close they are to the case.”

When Texans have questions for their governmental agencies, they deserve to have those questions answered by people who know what they’re talking about.

The second important issue is transparency. State Sen. Kevin Eltife takes issue with the Railroad Commission’s policy.

“It’s a slap in the face of transparency,” he says. “There’s no reason why state employees shouldn’t be allowed to speak to the media. The more available information is, the better off we all are. As a state senator, I would sure like for the agency to explain to me why such a policy was put into place.”

That’s a question we all deserve an answer to.