January 20, 2008
Gas lines and the Railroad Commission

The Senate election this year is likely to get the bulk of the attention here, barring the somewhat unlikely possibility that the Presidential candidates feel the need to contest the state, but there's an election for the Railroad Commission that's pretty important as well. You may not think a body called the Railroad Commission would have much impact on your life, but as this Chron story shows, it's closer to you than you might think.

Ann Patterson Smith was sleeping in her Missouri City home last Jan. 25 when shortly after midnight a natural gas explosion destroyed her house, throwing her into the backyard with the same force that drove a two-by-four through the brick wall of a home two doors down.

Neighbors found her standing in the yard, legs burned, ribs broken and two vertebrae cracked. Gas had entered the house through a sewer line. The rubber gasket on what was left of her toilet was flaming blue like a burner on a stove.

"It was the chimney and I left standing," Smith, 70, said in an interview last week.

The cause of the gas leak was failure of an old compression coupling in the service line to Smith's house, a type of pipe connector that often was used in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Texas Railroad Commission in November ordered the state's gas providers to remove and replace such fittings but gave them two years to do it.

Critics have said that is too long. And now the three Democrats trying to unseat Republican Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams -- former San Antonio City Councilman Art Hall, 2006 nominee Dale Henry and Mark Thompson -- are using the problem, specifically fatal natural gas explosions in North Texas, as an issue against him.

Williams defends the commission's actions, saying Texas is the only state to have acted on the problem.

At least two fatal home explosions have occurred since 2006 in Texas because of coupling failure. Up to 100,000 homes in Texas may have similar connectors used on the pipes bringing gas to the house.

"My house is not the first, the only or the last this is going to happen to," Smith said.


The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates pipelines in Texas, last November ordered natural gas companies to remove and replace all old compression couplings.

But critics say the commission issued the order only after WFAA-TV in Dallas reported on the compression coupling problem.

The Democratic primary candidates contend the commission took too long to act and has given the gas companies too much time to fix a problem that could be an immediate threat to thousands of Texans.

"Several people have been killed because of pipeline safety standards that have not been sufficient," Hall said.

Hall said he also is concerned that gas companies will pass the cost of replacing the couplings on to consumers in the form of rate hikes.

Thompson said the issue shows the three Railroad commissioners are too close to the industry they regulate.

Since 2000, Williams has received $16,000 from North Texas gas supplier Atmos Energy and $12,500 from CenterPoint.

Henry's focus is on plugging abandoned oil wells that cause pollution, but he also is critical of the commission for not requiring faster action on replacing defective compression couplings in gas lines.

Read the whole thing, it does a good job of laying out the issue. I don't know if I'll get the opportunity to talk to any of the Railroad Commission candidates before the primary - I hope I will, because I'm not sure yet who I want to vote for, and that would surely help - but at least RG Ratcliffe has done so. The Texas Politics Railroad Commission archives have podcast interviews with Commissioner Williams, Art Hall, Mark Thompson, and Dale Henry. I'm going to give them a listen, and I encourage you to do so as well.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 20, 2008 to Election 2008

PZ Myers suggests Texas look at school board elections, too.

Posted by: Linkmeister on January 20, 2008 4:07 PM