Original article in the Columbia Journalism Review
AUSTIN — Earlier this month, the residents of Denton, Texas—located on one of the country’s largest natural gas reserves and home to some 275 gas wells—voted to ban fracking. The ban was a first for a city in Texas, where fracking has enabled an oil and gas boom; the state now accounts for one-third of the United States’ natural gas production. In this period of boom and blowback, the state agencies that regulate the oil and gas industry here are perhaps more important than ever—and, according to frustrated reporters, increasingly impenetrable.
To accurately cover fracking and the broader energy beat in Texas, reporters need access to scientists at the agencies that regulate the industry—namely, the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees oil and gas operations including permitting wells and rigs, and the state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Instead, reporters say their questions are routinely handled by media relations departments and policymakers at these agencies. The Railroad Commission and the TCEQ are regulatory bodies, but they are not above the political fray—one of the three (elected) Railroad commissioners, Republican Barry Smitherman, suggested Russia was behind the fracking ban in Denton. All of which, reporters say, compounds the need for transparency.
Taking an unprecedented, formal step in the other direction, the Railroad Commission in 2012 “instituted a blanket policy barring staff members from doing media interviews,” as The Associated Press reported when it broke the story this summer, “raising questions about transparency as the state grapples with the intricacies of one of the largest energy booms in decades.” The policy also holds employees “responsible for any misinformation, misquotes, misinterpretations or misrepresentations conveyed by the employee,” the AP wrote—which, one state lawmaker told the AP, “would appear to have a deterrent effect.” At the TCEQ, the official policy allows staffers with previous media experience to answer “routine questions,” but does not allow them to talk to the press about “a controversial or potentially controversial or sensitive matter” without going through media relations.
In other words, the Railroad Commission’s interview ban formalizes what has been an ongoing lack of transparency from the agency and, perhaps to a lesser extent, from the TCEQ. Reporters have struggled to gain access to these agencies during what has been a very busy time—the Railroad Commisison boasts issuing more drilling permits over the last three years than during any three-year period since the 1980s.
Kate Galbraith was the energy and environment reporter at The Texas Tribune for three years until 2013, and interacted with both agencies regularly. “I rarely got interviews with staff scientists or policymakers in either organization, which is something I really wish could have happened more often,” Galbraith told me. “A couple of times I talked to air quality scientists at TCEQ, but I don’t think I was ever able to get direct access to staffers at the Railroad Commission [outside of] the commissioners.”
This sounds familiar to Randy Lee Loftis, a veteran reporter who has covered energy and the environment for 25 years at The Dallas Morning News. “Sometimes science speaks against policy and that’s why we want to explore what the real technical experts think about it,” says Loftis. “We want to know what happened before it got massaged through five layers of political appointees.”
Loftis says it’s difficult to get access at either agency, but confirms that the Railroad Commission is especially challenging. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex sits atop the Barnett Shale, and was the first urban area in the country to be heavily fracked beginning in the mid-2000s. Loftis says he had dealt with the TCEQ and its predecessor agency regularly over the years, but his contact with the Railroad Commission increased when fracking came to his area around 2004 because that’s the agency that grants permits for drilling and fracking. He’s never been able to get an interview with a staff member or scientist there, even before the Railroad Commission barred its employees from speaking to press. Railroad Commission spokesperson Ramona Nye says the agency formally adopted the policy in 2012, but that it had been unofficial policy for about eight years before that—right around the time fracking exploded in Texas. The AP described the Commission’s approach this way:
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. Instead, as in all issues, questions must be emailed to Nye, who talks to staffers and provides their answers. It is unclear who is answering the questions, where they rank in the agency and how close they are to the case.
Compared to the Railroad Commission, the TCEQ is more open in that it doesn’t completely prohibit interviews with press—but reporters say access to experts and scientists is extremely limited and sometimes blocked. In 2013, the Pulitzer Prize-winning online outlet InsideClimate News teamed up with the Center for Public Integrity to launch a project about air quality problems in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale. Since then, its reporters have produced some of the most important stories about fracking in the Eagle Ford, a booming shale play that was until that point largely ignored by the media. The InsideClimate reporters wanted to know what kind of effect ubiquitous drilling and fracking had on air quality—and the lives of the residents—in the mostly rural counties in south-central Texas. In one-and-a-half years of reporting numerous investigative stories and reaching out to both agencies, none of the three reporters dedicated to Texas coverage were able to secure an interview with either a TCEQ or Railroad Commission scientist or expert. READ FULL STORY AT CJR.ORG