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.
The commission issues permits for oil and gas wells, and Wright spent much of his time inspecting newly built wells and determining whether they were safe enough to become operational. Shoddy well construction is considered a primary cause of groundwater contamination at drilling sites. His job also included making sure decommissioned wells were properly plugged with cement, so residual oil and gas didn’t pollute groundwater.