What happens to energy regulators that dare to do their jobs and try to actually regulate energy companies? They get fired.
That's the news according to a pair of Texas inspectors that monitored oil and gas operations in the state. Though each man worked separately, counties apart, their stories of being abruptly fired for following their job descriptions are troubling to say the least. Here are the stories that InsideClimate News turned up.
Fred Wright, a well inspector, was sacked 17 months ago. Multiple promotions and raises over his years as an employee indicated a job well done, as did his regularly solid performance reviews. The only slightly negative comments he received on these reviews seemed to reflect more poorly on the regulatory industry. Wright was cited twice for not understanding that there should be "exceptions" to the rules he was set to enforce. He also was formally chided for not having better relationships with the gas companies he was evaluating, as if being chummy would improve his job performance.
In a wrongful termination lawsuit, Wright alleges he was directed by superiors to approve of unsafe wells that weren't up to regulation with the hope and understanding that the companies would fix the faulty wells down the road. Wright didn't feel right signing off on this sort of thing, and as a result multiple companies filed complaints that Wright was difficult to handle. In other words, "He's actually trying to regulate us!"
While the other regulator, Morris Kocurek, is not filing a lawsuit, he is willing to share the troubling things he witnessed during his time on the job. Though he was never explicitly told to go easy on the oil companies, it was easy for him to read between the lines based on responses to his work. "Go through the motions, but don't really do your job," Kocurek said. "That's what everybody wanted."
He watched the commission intentionally delay the delivery of violation reports, and then sent some of the more "lenient" employees to do the follow-ups on these violations. In one particularly egregious incident where toxic sludge was left sitting in the open, Kocurek filed multiple reports to do something about it, to no avail. When this mess started killing local birds, he called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to intervene. Even though his employers were doing nothing to address the situation, they obviously were unhappy with him having the matter taken out of their hands. Shortly thereafter, with good job evaluations in his file, Kocurek was terminated without an explanation.
Sadly, these frightening stories don't seem unusual for Texas. When Denton, Texas voted to ban fracking in its city limits last month, one of the chief regulators of the oil and gas industry in the state said she would continue to issue permits for drilling in Denton anyway. Clearly, the regulators seem to think they're on the same team as the energy companies.
It's a problem that's not unique to Texas or the energy sector. Two months ago, a whistleblower made similar allegations about the Fed for being too lenient with Wall Street companies. Time and time again, we see regulators willfully ignoring the wrongdoing of the richest corporations. If the regulators aren't actually keeping an eye on these entities, who is?