The Engineer and the Conductor

The Engineer and the Conductor

Ryan Sitton is new guy at the Texas Railroad Commission, but with his technical background and measured approach, he was made for this post.

by Al Pickett, Special Contributor

Ryan Sitton, the newest member of the Texas Railroad Commission, has now been on the job a little more than a year since being elected to the office in November 2014. So what has been his biggest surprise in his first year of serving on the three-member commission, which is the regulatory agency governing the oil and gas industry in the Lone Star State?

“I have never held elected office before,” he replied, “so I think I envisioned it would be a government agency where people maybe didn’t want to be there and were just waiting to retire. What I found was a striking difference. There are 800 people who work here for the Railroad Commission. Many of them are professional staff—geologists, engineers, seismologists. They are an exceptionally committed group. They understand the importance of the oil and gas industry in Texas and the role we play. That was a pleasant surprise.”

Sitton said the other thing that has surprised him is “just how much there is to do” from permit approvals to operational and technical issues.

“The oil and gas industry has grown so much in Texas,” he continued, pointing out that since 2008 oil production in the state has tripled from one million barrels a day to three million barrels. Gas production has also doubled, and the state’s pipeline infrastructure has grown by 35 to 40 percent to more than 400,000 miles of pipelines in the last seven years, according to Sitton.

“I am an engineer geek, so I love it,” he quipped in reference to the technical issues.

In fact, Sitton is the first engineer in 50 years to serve on the Texas Railroad Commission. A native of Irving, Sitton graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in mechanical engineering. Following college, he went to work as an engineer in the energy industry.

In 2006, Sitton and his wife Jennifer founded PinnacleAIS, an engineering and technology company focused on reliability and integrity programs for the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. PinnacleAIS, recognized in 2012 and 2013 by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 1,500 fastest growing, privately held companies in the world, now employs more than 350. It is focused on helping its customers ensure their equipment operates safely and reliably.

Although he still owns the company in a blind trust, Sitton said he no longer serves as chief executive officer for PinnacleAIS. He claimed his engineering background has been beneficial to reading technical papers and understanding the principles involved in issues that come before the RRC.

After starting and owning his own successful business, what made Sitton run for public office?

“I have been blessed,” he replied. “I feel fortunate that I was in a position where I can put my time and effort into things that impact the world. The oil and gas industry has grown so aggressively in Texas, people want information and I can do things that are impactful.”

In fact, the thing that occupies most of Sitton’s time is dealing with the public. “Public engagement” is how he describes it. “Many parts of the state are experiencing new activity,” Sitton added. “People want to know what regulations are in place, what are we doing. People in Texas appreciate the oil and gas industry, but they want to know it is being done safely. That is what the Railroad Commission does. I have gone into local communities and had conversations with people, whether it is one-on-one or with small groups, to inform them what is happening and to answer their questions. It may be them wanting to understand how we know a pipeline is safe or some other issue. I try to let them know we are on the job and help them understand the policy. It is very rewarding.”

The oil and gas industry, which makes up 40 percent of the state’s economy, is obviously struggling at the moment because of the slumping commodity prices.

“As a regulatory agency, we don’t have responsibility for the economic vitality of the oil and gas industry,” Sitton said. “But we do have some opportunity to help bolster the industry. We engage with operators to where we see the market. We talk to the state comptroller about what this means for the state. We try to take a forward look to where the market is going and help articulate the issues to give our industry some sense of comfort to stay the course during the current economic climate.”

He feels especially compassionate about defending the state’s oil and gas industry against what he perceives as a “federal overreach.” Sitton and fellow commissioners Christi Craddick and David Porter recently submitted formal comments on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules on methane emissions for oil and gas operators. Their comments, according to Sitton, highlighted what they describe as the “overreach of regulation by the federal government, the unnecessary cost of oil and gas operators, and the likelihood additional costs would stifle innovation and jobs in the industry.”

“The Railroad Commission knows how to regulate the oil and gas industry in Texas, and our sister agency, the TCEQ [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality], does an excellent job of regulating air quality in Texas,” Sitton stated. “The federal government’s continued push to implement one-size-fits-all environmental regulatory approaches is absurd. States need to retain their primary jurisdiction, and federal agencies should stop usurping congressional power by promulgating rules that go beyond their statutory authority. Regulatory agencies should regulate policy, not set policy by bypassing the Congressional or legislative authority like the EPA is doing under this President.”

Sitton contended that recent rules and proposed new rules on CO2 and methane emissions will drive electricity prices up two to three times what citizens currently pay and will have a substantial negative impact on oil and gas operators in the United States with only a minimal reduction of emissions.

“It will force us to buy more oil overseas, where they are under less restrictive environmental programs,” he noted, “and it will penalize our own companies.”

Sitton pointed out that the Railroad Commission doesn’t sue (the federal government). The state’s Attorney General does that.

“But we can help the Attorney General make his case,” he added.

He said that people often make the claim that if one opposes the EPA regulations, then he must oppose all regulations of the oil and gas industry. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Sitton.

“We know Texas citizens who elected us to the Railroad Commission demand to be confident in the oil and gas industry, to make sure it is done safely,” he emphasized. “We make sure good operators are allowed to thrive and produce. If they don’t do it responsibly, we hold them accountable. Washington is not based on scientific buy-in. It is all done in the language of a political agenda. Washington doesn’t get what is the role for a regulatory agency.”

In another year, Sitton will no longer be the newcomer on the Railroad Commission because Porter announced in December that he is not running for re-election.

“I am a conservative and much of what I do is based on conservative principles,” he emphasized. “But none of that matters as to how I do my job as a commissioner. Do I take the time to engage in the technical issues? The new commissioner doesn’t have to be an engineer, but when you vote for a new commissioner, you should look for folks who are thoughtful, who will evaluate the issues and have some working basis to do the job you want done from the Railroad Commission.”

Al Pickett is a freelance writer in Abilene and author of four books. He also owns the West Central Texas Oil Activity Index, a daily and weekly oil and gas reporting service. For more information, email apickett@sbcglobal.net.