PEARSALL, Texas—During their careers as oil and gas inspectors for the Texas Railroad Commission, Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek earned merit raises, promotions and praise from their supervisors.
They went about their jobs—keeping tabs on the conduct of the state's most important industry—with gusto.
But they may have done their jobs too well for the industry's taste—and for their own agency's.
Kocurek and Wright, who worked in different Railroad Commission districts, were fired within months of each other in 2013. Both say their careers were upended by their insistence that oil and gas operators follow rules intended to protect the public and the environment.
The incidents Kocurek and Wright describe offer an inside look at how Texas regulates the oil and gas industry, a subject InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been investigating for more than a year and a half.
The investigation has found that the Railroad Commission and its sister agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, focus more on protecting the industry than the public, an approach tacitly endorsed by the state’s political leaders. The Railroad Commission is controlled by three elected commissioners who, combined, accepted nearly $3 million in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Gov. Rick Perry collected a little less than $11.5 million in campaign contributions from those in the industry since the 2000 election cycle. The governor-elect, Attorney General Greg Abbott, accepted more than $6.8 million.
Wright's job with the Railroad Commission was a particularly important one.
Two former oil and gas inspectors for the Texas Railroad Commission, Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek, were fired within months of each other in 2013.
They say they were fired because they demanded that the oil and gas industry strictly abide by state regulations designed to protect the public and the environment. The inspectors' responsibilities included keeping old and new wells safe and making sure the industry's often-toxic waste didn't become a hazard.
Below are links to some of the hundreds of pages of commission records that InsideClimate News used to document the praise, promotions, censure and exile that marked the men's careers. The documents were obtained by filing requests under the Texas Public Information Act.
This project is part of a joint investigation by InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel and The Investigative Fund.
U.S. regulators knew they had to act fast. A train hauling 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota had exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Now they had to assure Americans a similar disaster wouldn’t happen south of the border, where the U.S. oil boom is sending highly volatile crude oil every day over aging, often defective rails in vulnerable railcars.
On the surface, the response from Washington following the July, 6, 2013 explosion seemed promising. Over the next several months, the U.S. Department of Transportation, issued two emergency orders, two safety alerts and a safety advisory. It began drafting sweeping new oil train regulations to safeguard the sudden surge of oil being shipped on U.S. rails. The railroad industry heeded the call, too, agreeing to slow down trains, increase safety inspections and reroute oil trains away from populous areas.
But almost a year and a half later—and after three railcar explosions in the United States—those headline-grabbing measures have turned out to be less than they appeared. Idling oil trains are still left unattended in highly populated areas. The effort to draft new safety regulations has been bogged down in disputes between the railroads and the oil industry over who will bear the brunt of the costs. The oil industry is balking at some of the tanker upgrades, and the railroads are lobbying against further speed restrictions.
And rerouting trains away from big cities and small towns? That, too, has been of limited value, because refineries, ports and other offloading facilities tend to be in big cities.
InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel, and The Investigative Fund have monitored the regulatory response to oil train explosions this year, focusing on whether the agency that oversees the railroads—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—is able to ensure that the nation's aging railroad infrastructure can safely handle its latest task: serving as a massive, rickety network of pipelines on wheels.
On July 6, 2013, a train carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people and incinerating the downtown. Since then, three oil trains have exploded on the U.S. side of the border, where the surge in domestic oil production now sends millions of trainloads of crude through cities and small towns.
This story is part of a joint investigation by InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel and The Investigative Fund. Read the main story Boom: North America's Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem.
The first public action U.S. rail regulators took after a fiery oil train explosion killed 47 people in Canada in July 2013 seemed clear, impactful and firm: Trains carrying hazardous materials could no longer be left unattended with their engines running unless the railroad first got approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.
Leaving a freight train unattended overnight with the engines running had been a major factor in the Lac-Megantic, Canada, disaster, and the August 2, 2013 news release announcing the U.S. action had a no-more-business-as-usual tone. The emergency order was "a mandatory directive to the railroad industry, and failure to comply will result in enforcement actions," the press release said, adding no train shall be left unattended on the tracks with its engines running "unless specifically authorized."
But it turns out that the emergency order had a loophole big enough to drive a locomotive through.
At a news conference in Lima where scientists showed that 2014 is likely to be the hottest year ever, the United Nations' top climate official said out loud what has been on everybody's minds as treaty negotiations creep forward.
It is "very clear" that countries' pledges on carbon emissions won't be ambitious enough to tip the world into a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, said Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
"The sum total of all the national contributions on the table today—and coming on the table next year—will not be able to get us to that tipping point, and certainly not to close the [emissions] gap" between pledges and the UN's goals, she said.
So this month in Lima, she said, the negotiators have to answer two questions:
One of the thorniest issues dividing nations at the Lima climate talks involves the looming costs of adapting to global warming. For poorer countries, climate assistance from rich nations that caused most of the problem is a prerequisite for a deal.
Now, a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme says the costs of adaptation will likely run at least two or three times more than previously estimated, and as much as four or five times more.
The current estimate of between $70 billion and $100 billion a year is "likely to be a significant underestimate, particularly in the years 2030 and beyond," said The Adaptation Gap Report: A Preliminary Assessment.
The most crucial battles in the fight against climate change are unfolding now in Lima, Peru. That's where negotiators from around the world are hashing out issues of fairness and finance to sketch out an effective climate treaty that would push greenhouse gas emissions to zero this century.
Note: InsideClimate News reporter John H. Cushman Jr. will be filing posts from Lima this week. Read his stories at the Carbon Copy blog and follow him on twitter @jackcushmanjr.
Representatives from more than 190 nations are meeting for talks in Lima, Peru (Dec. 1 – Dec. 14) to hammer out the draft of the first truly global pact to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The ultimate goal: signing a treaty a year from now in Paris. If successful, it would be the world's most complex and encompassing treaty ever devised. The last attempt was in 2009 at the Copenhagen climate talks.
More than a year ago, InsideClimate News set out to tell the story of seven American hikers who went on a wilderness adventure into Canada's Arctic and came back with a harrowing story after one of them was brutally attacked by a polar bear.
The result was "Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World," a web-based report we released last month.
Nine people were arrested Thursday near Seneca Lake, N.Y., for blockading the entrances of an energy facility owned by Crestwood Midstream Partners LP, which received federal approval this fall to expand its methane storage operations there.