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Although this exhibit focuses primarily on the dramatic regulatory battles in the railroad and oil industries, the Texas Railroad Commission has also taken on a number of important responsibilities.
A gas well in Petrolia, Clay County, Texas
Natural gas is a naturally occuring mixture of methane, ethane, propane and other gases that often forms near underground oil reservoirs. In the early days of Texas oil exploration, natural gas found along with oil was mostly considered a nuisance. It was sometimes utilized for energy in the towns and cities near the fields. Otherwise, it was flared off (burned) at the wellhead, producing fires that illuminated the nighttime sky in the oil fields for many miles around.
A 1928 gas fire near Taft burned for months
During the oil boom of the late nineteen-teens and early twenties, cities that depended on natural gas, including Dallas and Fort Worth, found themselves in a struggle with the gas companies over high rates and unpredictable supply. The cities demanded better service but had no power to force the companies to comply with their demands. In 1920, the Texas legislature passed a law giving cities the right to regular their public utilities, and established the Railroad Commission as the authority to settle disputes. Gas companies were also required to report on the amount of gas sold and the rates charged.
Preventing the waste of gas became a primary concern of the Railroad Commission. The commission prohibited the flaring of casinghead gas in 1931, though enforcement was difficult. Gas continued to be of low economic value, and most operators didn’t see the potential profit in it.
The rescue effort at the scene of the New London gas explosion
The biggest story of the early years of natural gas in Texas was also one of the most tragic accidents in American history. At 3:05 p.m. on March 18, 1937, a massive natural gas explosion ripped through the school building in New London, Texas, a Rusk County town in the East Texas oil fields. The blast lifted the school off its foundations and sent it crashing back to earth, the entire structure collapsing in a huge pile of brick, steel, and concrete. Despite a frantic rescue effort, more than one half of the students and teachers – some 298 people -- were killed.
The subsequent investigation exposed the unsafe practice of “green” gas being tapped off as residue from the oilfields. Gas had been leaking from the residue line tap, and built up inside an enclosed crawlspace that ran the entire length of the school's facade. Since most East Texas natural gas is odorless, the stage was set for tragedy. As a direct result of the New London disaster, states all over the country began to require that natural gas be mixed with a malodorant to give early warning of a gas leak. The foul odor most people associate with gas is actually Mercaptan, the odorant added to natural gas. In Texas, the responsibility for overseeing this safety measure was added to the duties of the Railroad Commission.
After World War II, Commissioner William J. Murray, Jr. began a new push to eliminate the wasteful practice of flaring natural gas. Under his leadership, the Railroad Commission announced that natural gas had to be either prepared for the consumer or industrial market or reinjected into the oilfields to preserve reservoir pressure and increase the recovery of oil. Operators who failed to comply would be shut down. The new get-tough policy worked. Operators began to work at developing new markets for natural gas that would make it a profitable commodity. The legislature also helped in this effort by instituting new pipeline laws that made moving gas more profitable. The Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines, originally built to move oil to the eastern United States during World War II, were converted to natural gas pipelines, and a new pipeline was built to California.
Pressure map of the Panhandle, 1942
In the 1950s and 1960s, gas took on more importance and became a major industry in the state. The pipeline system was upgraded and expanded, including a major new pipeline to the Middle West. The Railroad Commission was responsible for formulating and enforcing safety rules and other complex regulations as gas became an important fuel not only in Texas but nationwide. With the advent of federal regulation in the late 1970s, a new layer of complexity was added to these duties.
Today, the Texas Railroad Commission is charged with ensuring a continuous and safe supply of gas. Cities continue to have the responsibility for negotiating rates, with the Railroad Commission handling the rates for unincorporated areas.
Liquified Petroleum Gas
During the 1930s, the Railroad Commission achieved jurisdiction over liquid propane gas (LPG), which was gradually replacing wood and kerosene as the fuel of choice in rural America. The commission's duties included regulating the handling and odorizing of LPG; establishing specifications for the equipment used to transport, store, and dispense LPG; examining and licensing operators in the industry; inspecting all public buildings and schools with LPG facilities installed; and investigating all accidents related to LPG use.