About Air and Water

Monday, February 11, 2008

Consumer issues likely to play large role in Texas Railroad Commission race

By R.A. DYER - Star-Telegram Staff Writer - Mon, Feb. 11, 2008

AUSTIN -- With North Texas residents feeling the economic pinch -- and home energy prices on the rise -- consumer issues could take center stage in the race for the Texas Railroad Commission.

Agency Chairman Michael Williams, 54, a Republican, is seeking re-election. Three Democrats are also running in their party's March 4 primary: former San Antonio Councilman Art Hall, 37; retired chemical engineer Dale Henry, 76; and Mark Thompson, 48, a mobility specialist for the blind. Thompson lives in Hamilton.

Set against the backdrop of the race are several home heating rate increases authorized by the commission. In at least two major North Texas cases, Williams joined with other commissioners in setting rates higher than the agency's own panel of experts had recommended.

Williams said that while he sometimes disagrees with those experts -- they're administrative law judges, and they conduct hearings and consider evidence in rate proceedings -- he nonetheless strives to reject unwarranted requests by utilities.

"But we can have a difference of opinion with regards to policy questions," he said.

The three Democratic candidates say the commission and Williams are too close to the industry they regulate. Each Democrat lambasted the panel for not doing enough to protect consumers.

"Citizens need to get upset -- they need to write the Texas Railroad Commission and talk to them," Thompson said.

The Texas Railroad Commission, an agency little-understood by the public, regulates the oil and gas industry and is charged with ensuring pipeline safety. It also makes environmental decisions regarding oil wells and authorizes cost-of-service rates for natural gas utilities.

Each of the Democrats gave the commission poor marks when it came to protecting ratepayers.

But it's also clear that not all the Democrats are well-versed on commission responsibilities.

For instance, Thompson has claimed that the agency lacks authority to set municipal rates. "When you think about it, they don't control rates in the cities," he said.

Actually, the commission has great authority over cost-of-service rates charged within cities.

Likewise, Hall stated at one time on his Web site that he would make railroad safety an issue in the race. Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission has no authority over railroads.

But Hall also said he has received an earful of complaints from North Texas residents about high utility rates. He described the commission as a "rubber stamp" for industry.

"I think it'll definitely be an issue during the general election," he said.

Henry, the retired petroleum engineer, said, "The Railroad Commission of Texas should not sit idly by as energy companies stick bills for hotel rooms and cases of wine to their ratepayers through cost-of-service rate increases" -- a reference to various luxury items put in a recent rate case by Atmos Energy.

The North Texas utility removed the items after reports appeared in the Star-Telegram.

Henry also said the commissioner has not done enough to ensure that Texans pay only the appropriate commodity price of natural gas and has "not done a credible job in reviewing and approving cost-of-service rate increases for natural gas companies."

A recent analysis by the Star-Telegram found that annual home heating bills are about the same now as they were in 2005, even though the commodity price of natural gas has come down dramatically since two hurricanes disrupted supplies that year.

The reason that bills remain high is related, in part, to repeated cost-of-service increases authorized by the commission.

"They need to keep down rates so that they're more reasonable," Thompson said.


Read more in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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