By Jennifer Hiller
San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — When Ryan Sitton was elected to the Railroad Commission of Texas in 2014, he was a political newcomer but hardly new to the world of oil and gas.
Sitton is a mechanical engineer and the first engineer to serve as a railroad commissioner in decades.
The agency, which has a name that confuses nearly everyone, was established in 1891 to regulate railroads, a function it no longer has. Today, it oversees coal and uranium mining, pipeline safety and natural gas utilities, but oil and gas is its biggest task, as Texas crude production heads toward the 1970 record of 3 million barrels daily.
Sitton and his wife, Jennifer, who also studied mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University, founded Pasadena-based PinnacleART, an engineering and technology company that focuses on safety and integrity for the oil and gas industry. It has more than 700 employees.
The Sittons have three children, and in his spare time, Sitton tinkers with his line of adult tricycles, called Extreme Tricycles.
Sitton sat down with the San Antonio Express-News on May 10, just after he finished leading a CrossFit-style exercise class for state employees on the lawn of the State Capitol with Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a fellow fitness buff.
Q: So who’s in better shape? Did you guys have a friendly wager going on?
A: We did not have a friendly wager. I got winded first, but I was also doing the instructing to get everybody going, so I’m going to claim that’s why I got winded.
Q: So along those lines of doing things that are a little unconventional and not expected, you toured a drilling rig recently and brought a camera along. Why do you think people need to know what a drilling rig is like?
A: Here we have an industry that is 30 percent of our state’s economy, and our state, depending on which numbers you look at, would be the 11th- or 13th-largest economy in the world, and so few people in the state have any working knowledge or even useful or real knowledge about the oil industry. So when you say a ‘drilling rig,’ most people have no idea what that means.
Q: Even if you have them in your community you can’t get to them.
A: You start from the idea that it’s one-third of our state’s economy almost. We ought to have a basic understanding of what’s happening out there. Part of it is I want people to feel comfortable. No one likes a drilling rig in their backyard. That’s a universal thing. But if it’s going to be in my neighborhood and it’s going to be here for three weeks and gone, and if I know that it’s safe in the meantime, then OK.
Q: Is there any desire to update more rules, or areas you’re seeing that need updating because of how much technology keeps changing out in the field?
A: We’re always going to be updating them. There won’t ever be a point where we go, ‘Ah, we’re done.’ I think what you might be getting at is, I think from the early 1970s probably until the early 2000s, for that 30-year span, things didn’t change very much. Then from 2005 to today, the last five years, 10 years or so, things have changed rapidly. So we are in a period of things changing rapidly and us having to also change rapidly, and that also is going to continue.
Q: So this seems to come up every couple of years. The name Railroad Commission. Love it or hate it?
A: I absolutely think we should change the name. I’ve said that since early on in my campaign all the way through my entire time in office. We absolutely should change the name, and I’ve been really public about that.
Q: Why is it so hard to change it?
A: We have 27 million Texans, probably less than a million of them actually know really what the Railroad Commission does. It’s a time now when we’re in information overload all the time. This agency is not named for the oil business folks like me. It’s named for the public, and that’s why we need to change it. Now to your second question. Why is it so hard to do? Because a lot of legislators here have been around in Texas a long time, and they represent people who are proud of that history and they’re sensitive to making those changes in a way that they fear would not respect that history. It’s just a question of how long does it go until people are comfortable with it.
Q: You often talk about how you are an environmentalist and consider yourself an environmentalist, which is not a super popular word for a conservative Republican to use. So I’m wondering how you explain that.
A: In my book it means I care deeply about our environment, and let’s even be more specific, about our communities, our forests, our waterways. Those things are not only something that are important to me and my family, but recognize those are things that have to be there for not just future generations, but for the human race to continue. What I’m trying to do is really change this whole dynamic in the political world. Because in the political world everything is black and white and two sides, right? And so, oh, well Republicans more believe in the economy and business more than the environment, and I don’t believe those two are juxtaposed. I think they absolutely go together.
Q: This isn’t a time when a lot of people seem to be able to have a lot of discussion across party lines or across ideological lines. Do you think there are any areas where industry and environmentalists can work together, or are on common ground?
A: Well let’s characterize specifically in the political world is where that happens. Most other worlds, that’s not the case. You can go into a local community where the local community says yes, we want more jobs here, more businesses here, but that doesn’t mean we want a chemical plant right in the middle of the town, and everyone works together. People in places like Baytown and Texas City have these conversations every day, right? It’s just in the world of Republican and Democrat and hyper partisanship that this stuff happens.
Q: What are your thoughts on how fast the shale producers have been able to move back into the field in the last six months or so in response to the price coming up?
A: I think we doubled the number of drilling rigs since we hit the low point. So I think a lot of that shows the fact that people were prepared. It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes from here. There’s been a lot of advances that allowed them to go in and do more with less people, using more technology and taking less resources. The time it takes to drill a well is less than it used to be. And so it doesn’t take as many drilling rigs to drill as many holes as it did even six years ago. It is not unrealistic to talk five, 10 years down the road, that we go past 3 million to 4 or even 5 million barrels a day. When you talk about those kind of numbers, that’s going to be interesting to see because that’s going to strap us resource-wise again.
Q: Pioneer Natural Resources board Chairman Scott Sheffield has made some pretty big predictions, it might be those kind of numbers where it’s pretty jaw-dropping.
A: Scott knows what he’s talking about. He’s been around this place a long time. Should have bought Pioneer stock, dang it.
Q: I would rather go back in a time machine and just buy a bunch of mineral rights.
A: Me too.
Quick facts on Ryan Sitton
What is your typical morning routine: Up around 5 a.m., walk for 30 minutes, P90X for 30 minutes, breakfast of egg whites and a protein shake, then hit the shower. Try to be at my office around 7:30 a.m.
What book are you reading right now: “The Go Giver: A Little Story about a Powerful Business Idea” by Bob Burg and John D. Mannand; and “Smarter, Faster, Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity” by Charles Duhigg.
Favorite restaurant: Taco Bell
What was your first job: Summer maintenance and general laborer for my family church.
What is your passion/hobby outside of work:Playing flag football, working out and tinkering with my line of adult tricycles.
If you had to pick an entirely different career in an entirely different industry, and there were no limitations to what you could do, what would it be:Either leadership coaching or physics teacher, or if there are really no limitations, Batman.