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Texas RRC Intervenes in Renewable Transmission Proceedings

Expressing concern that proposed renewable energy transmission lines may "impede the development of oil and natural gas resources," the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) last week filed motions to intervene in several Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) proceedings.

The RRC, which is the state agency responsible for regulating oil and gas wells in Texas, requested permission to file late motions to intervene in several applications by Oncor Electric Delivery Co. LLC (Dockets No. 37407, 37409, 37408, 37409, 37463, 37464, 37529 and 37530).

The Texas electricity and transmission supplier is developing the largest section of the state's Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) projects, including about 850 miles of transmission lines. Last January the PUCT assigned Oncor about $1.3 billion of the estimated $5 billion in CREZ construction projects.

CREZ, approved by the Texas legislature, would move wind power produced in West Texas to urban areas of the state. The "Renewable Energy Super Highway" is part of a broader initiative by the PUCT to improve the state's transmission system and interconnect existing and future renewable energy facilities to transmit electricity from CREZ.

The RRC's motion to intervene concerns Oncor's request to amend its Certificates of Convenience and Necessity for CREZ transmission lines that would cross the state.

"The proposed routes for the transmission lines may include active and inactive oil and gas well sites," the RRC motion states.

The RRC, which missed the original filing deadline, said it had not intervened on time because it was not identified by Oncor as a "potentially affected party" nor was it provided with the application.

After "independently learning of the application," RRC's legal staff "investigated the issues" and decided to intervene, it said.

"The participation by the RRC will not disrupt the proceedings as RRC involvement will be limited to its investigation of whether the proposed routes will impact oil and gas well sites," the motion states.

"Specifically, the presence of an oil or gas well within the right-of-way of a transmission line may hinder RRC state-funded plugging of abandoned or orphaned wells. Additionally, the presence of a transmission line may impact the RRC's ability to require the operator of the well to comply with all RRC rules and orders relating to safety, pollution and the prevention of waste.

"Finally, in some instances, the location of a transmission line may impede the development of oil and natural gas resources."

David Power, the deputy director of Public Citizen in Texas, said the filing was done only in the interest of oil and gas producers.

In its filing, said Power, the RRC "inappropriately expressed concern for current and future oil and gas development in Texas. In doing so, the commission stepped outside of its regulatory role to promote the interests of Big Oil. While the commission's stated task is 'primary regulatory jurisdiction over the oil and natural gas industry,' in this case, it is attempting to pick winners and losers in regards to Texas' energy future."

Power also was concerned about the motives of Michael Williams, who sits on the RRC and who is expected to run for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is likely to run for governor. Power said he questioned whether Williams "is acting in the best interest of the public or doing favors for potential campaign contributors."

However, RRC Executive Director John Tintera called Power's statements were "unequivocally untrue." In a letter sent to Power on Wednesday, Tintera said the RRC had sought to intervene in the PUCT proceedings "to ensure that the commission's ability to plug or direct the plugging of oil and gas wells as required by law is not hindered and that the potential pollution of our state's lakes, rivers and aquifers is thereby prevented.

"The commission's interests are not to block the development of the proposed transmission lines but to reach an appropriate accommodation and workable arrangement allowing us to ensure the continued, effective oversight of all wells, including inactive and abandoned wells. Given the likelihood that hundreds, if not thousands, of active and inactive oil and gas wells are currently located along or within the proposed transmission line corridors, our involvement in these proceedings is imperative."

Tintera noted that the RRC has used funds from the state's Oilfield Cleanup Fund to plug abandoned or orphaned wells and to clean up oil and gas sites, which has led to the "plugging of 30,401" wells and the "remediation of 4,313 sites. It has proven to be an extremely successful and critical tool in the commission's efforts to protect the environment."

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