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Correction: Texas Agency-Media Gag story

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm •  Published: June 16, 2014
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HOUSTON (AP) — In a story June 16 about Texas' oil and gas regulator, The Associated Press reported erroneously that the agency's no-interview policy was instituted in August. It was instituted in August 2012.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Texas' oil, gas regulator refuses to talk to media

Texas' oil, gas regulator, key to ensuring drilling boom is safe, refuses media interviews

By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI

Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — Texas' oil and gas regulator has instituted a blanket policy barring staff from doing media interviews, raising questions about transparency just as the state grapples with the intricacies of one of the largest energy booms in decades.

The three-member Texas Railroad Commission, which is one of the largest state agencies of its kind in the country, approved the policy in August 2012, shortly before Milton Rister took over as the commission's executive director. Since then, he has used the authority the policy gives him to funnel all media inquiries through a spokeswoman who responds via email and bars any direct access to staff.

The commission, which also regulates pipelines and mining, devotes much of its time to permitting oil and gas drilling and production, ensuring wells are safe and investigating complaints or problems at those sites.

For a Texas agency to ban all media interviews is unusual. Typically, the media relations department is not the source of information, but rather acts as a liaison to connect journalists with the staff they need to speak with for a particular story.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state agency whose responsibilities often overlap with the Railroad Commission, routinely grants interviews with staff members who are scientists and experts. The General Land Office, which is responsible for offshore oil spill cleanup, also allows staff to speak with the media.

Speaking to agency petroleum experts, engineers and other qualified staff is crucial to understanding the work being done at the agency, its oversight, the status of its investigations and the quality of that work. Having information funneled through a spokeswoman makes the origin and credibility of the responses unclear.

"There needs to be some rationale behind the Railroad Commission or any agency to outweigh the public's right to be informed," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who is on the Texas Legislature's Transparency in State Agency Operations Committee.

Prior to Rister's appointment, the Railroad Commission routinely made staff and the agency's executive director — at the time John Tintera — available for interviews. However, that changed under Rister just as oil and gas production boomed. Since his appointment in September 2012, Texas has seen crude oil production rise from 53.2 million barrels a month to 62.4 million barrels, an increase of more than 17 percent.

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