Texas Railroad Commission likely to adopt new media policy aimed at transparency

Earlier this month, with Texans wondering about the cause of a series of small quakes in the Dallas area, the Texas Railroad Commission took an unusual step: It made available to reporters a staff seismologist and the agency’s executive director.

The Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, had instituted a policy barring staff from speaking with reporters.

The media availability involving the seismic activity was a foretaste of a new effort at transparency at the agency: On Tuesday, the Railroad Commission will likely adopt a new media policy.

The new policy proposal directs members of the Railroad Commission, apart from commissioners and their staff, to alert the agency’s communications division of all media inquiries. But it couches that language — standard practice at most state agencies — in terms of getting a timely response to the media.

“When deemed appropriate and contingent upon availability, additional RRC employees designated by the communications director, media affairs manager or executive director may be authorized to speak to the media,” states the new media policy proposal.

The current (soon to be old) policy has led to criticism. The Associated Press had reported last summer that all media inquiries had been funneled through a Railroad Commission spokeswoman who responded via email and barred any direct access to staff. That policy also said that if permission was granted for an interview, “the employee shall be responsible for any misinformation, misquotes, misinterpretations or misrepresentations conveyed by the employee. Failure to comply with this policy could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”

That policy was called “concerning,” by the House Energy Resources Committee in a report released earlier this month.

The policy revision, which drops the disciplinary language, comes with the hire last fall of Rich Parsons, a former KXAN reporter and veteran of the communications offices of former Gov. Rick Perry and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

“There’s a deep commitment to make sure the agency is fully transparent, accountable and accessible to the public and the media to make sure Texans know what the commission is doing in its efforts to protect the people of Texas and protect our natural resources,” Parsons told the Statesman. “Last November when I arrived, one of the things that we wanted to do was revisit the communications policy. We wanted to work on some revisions to better reflect the desire of the agency to be open, transparent, accessible, and accountable.”

Author: Asher Price

Asher Price has covered energy and the environment for the American-Statesman since 2006. Twice the Society of Environmental Journalists has named him a finalist for its beat reporter of the year award. He spent part of the spring of 2011 as an environmental science journalism fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and during the 2011-12 academic year was stationed at Columbia’s business and journalism schools as a Knight-Bagehot fellow. He is the co-author of the book The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power. (UT Press.) His new book, Year of the Dunk, comes out in May 2015. He lives in the South Congress neighborhood with his wife and dog.

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