By: Carlos J. Moreno

In Railroad Commission of Texas v. Texas Citizens for a Safe Future and Clean Water, No. 08-0497, 2011 WL 836827 (Tex. Mar. 11, 2011), the Supreme Court of Texas reversed the Austin Court of Appeal’s finding that the Railroad Commission (the “Commission”) has to consider broad public safety concerns in the permitting of proposed oil and gas waste injection wells.

The case involved a proposed oil and gas waste injection well in the Barnett Shale Area. Before the Commission can grant an injection well permit, the Texas Injection Well Act requires it to find that the use or installation of the injection well is in the public interest.  At the administrative hearing, a group of residents living near the well (“Texas Citizens”) expressed concern about the large trucks hauling fracing waste water and whether the trucks would damage nearby roads. The Commission concluded that it had no jurisdiction to regulate traffic, and granted the injection well permit after finding that doing so would be in the public interest. Subsequently, Texas Citizens challenged the Commission’s findings in state court, arguing in part that the Commission should have considered traffic safety concerns in its public interest inquiry. The trial court found in favor of the Commission, but the appeals court reversed. The court of appeals found that the Commission had abused its discretion in interpreting the public interest inquiry too narrowly. The Commission and the proposed injection well operator appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.

The supreme court framed the issue as a statutory construction inquiry. The court evaluated whether the commission’s interpretation of the public interest inquiry, as including only matters related to oil and gas production, should be given judicial deference. Looking at Texas case law, the court found that the Commission’s interpretation of the “public interest” language should be given “serious consideration” if the construction is reasonable and does not contradict the plain language of the statute. 

The court pointed to several factors in concluding that the Commission’s interpretation should be upheld. First, the court noted that the statute specifically instructed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to consider roadway concerns when permitting other types of injection wells, but did not include similar language for oil and gas waste injection wells regulated by the Commission. Second, the court noted that while the “public interest” term is ambiguous and can support more than one interpretation, the interpretation offered by Texas Citizens would mean that the Commission “would have to consider and weigh a limitless number of factors beyond the Commission’s institutional competence” in oil and gas operations. Finally, the court pointed to how long the Commission’s interpretation had been in place, noting that an agency’s long-standing interpretation of a statute is particularly worthy of deference because if the legislature disagreed with the interpretation, it could have amended the statute appropriately. 

Three justices concurred in the judgment, but would have found that the statute itself unambiguously precludes consideration of traffic safety concerns.

The court’s holding means that as part of the public interest inquiry required for issuance of an injection well permit, the Commission can continue to only consider matters related to the production of oil and gas.

The full text of the opinion is available at the following link: