PEARSALL, Texas — During their careers as oil and gas inspectors for the Texas Railroad Commission, Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek earned merit raises, promotions and praise from their supervisors.
They went about their jobs — keeping tabs on the conduct of the state’s most important industry — with gusto.
But they may have done their jobs too well for the industry’s taste — and for their own agency’s.
Kocurek and Wright, who worked in different Railroad Commission districts, were fired within months of each other in 2013. Both say their careers were upended by their insistence that oil and gas operators follow rules intended to protect the public and the environment.
The incidents Kocurek and Wright describe offer an inside look at how Texas regulates the oil and gas industry, a subject InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been investigating for more than a year and a half.
The investigation has found that the Railroad Commission and its sister agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, focus more on protecting the industry than the public, an approach tacitly endorsed by the state’s political leaders. The Railroad Commission is controlled by three elected commissioners who, combined, accepted nearly $3 million in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Gov. Rick Perry collected a little less than $11.5 million in campaign contributions from those in the industry since the 2000 election cycle. The governor-elect, Attorney General Greg Abbott, accepted more than $6.8 million.
Wright’s job with the Railroad Commission was a particularly important one.
The commission issues permits for oil and gas wells, and Wright spent much of his time inspecting newly built wells and determining whether they were safe enough to become operational. Shoddy well construction is considered a primary cause of groundwater contamination at drilling sites. His job also included making sure decommissioned wells were properly plugged with cement, so residual oil and gas didn’t pollute groundwater.
Wright was known as a stickler for regulations. One industry executive complained that Wright returned unapproved applications “dripping in red pen.”
Wright said he was often encouraged to bend the rules.
In a July 2013 complaint he filed with the commission to protest his firing, he said his superiors told him to say “operators had complied with certain rules when they had not.” According to a letter his attorney wrote to the U.S. Department of Labor, he was “threatened, intimidated, and coerced into not requiring operators to comply with the rules and laws with which the RRC is charged with enforcing.”
Kocurek’s primary job was to enforce another Railroad Commission mandate: Making sure the industry’s often-toxic waste was disposed of properly. Kocurek said his bosses never directly told him to go easy on the industry but made it clear that’s what they wanted. He said they were slow to process the violation notices he issued and sometimes assigned follow-up investigations to more lenient inspectors.
The Railroad Commission declined to comment on the men’s dismissals. Spokeswoman Ramona Nye said the agency doesn’t discuss personnel issues.
Wright, 64, and his attorney declined to be interviewed for this article because of his pending litigation, but hundreds of pages of records released under the Texas Public Information Act provide details about the deterioration of his career. Wright has filed a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. He has also filed a federal whistleblower complaint.
Kocurek, 61, hasn’t taken any legal action. He said he prefers to forget about his 18-month stint with the Railroad Commission.
Several of the accounts Kocurek shared in interviews for this report were corroborated by documents obtained from the Railroad Commission through the open-records requests and by Deputy Sheriff Hector Zertuche, the environmental crimes officer for Jim Wells County, who often worked alongside Kocurek. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer corroborated another account.
Kocurek said he realized soon after he was hired that the industry held great sway with the commission: Phone calls were made, and violations disappeared.
“It didn’t take long to see what was happening,” he said. “Go through the motions, but don’t really do your job. That’s what everybody wanted.”
‘Operators complain that you are unreasonable’
Wright joined the Railroad Commission in 2007 with an impressive résumé: a bachelor’s degree in engineering, post-graduate training in petroleum engineering and more than a decade of experience with the oil and gas industry and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Year after year, formal performance reviews by his supervisors indicated that the quality and quantity of his work met the commission’s requirements. Never once was a box checked indicating that his work was unsatisfactory or needed improvement.
He was promoted two times and given merit and retention bonuses, according to performance appraisals obtained under an open-records request. His monthly salary increased from $3,541 to $4,325.
Wright’s official performance evaluations for 2007 and 2008 show he met all of the requirements for his job. He got his first promotion in 2008.
In 2009 his work was again rated satisfactory, but a note from his supervisor hinted of trouble.
“Mr. Wright should continue to improve his knowledge of RRC rules and policies and their nuances [when an exception is warranted],” said a note in his evaluation. (The bracketed phrase was in the evaluation.)
In his 2010 evaluation, Wright was praised for “excellent knowledge of RRC rules, regulations and policies.” But again the praise came with a caveat.
"He needs to have a better understanding that there can be and are exceptions to many of them if the circumstances seem to meet the required objective,” the unsigned document said.
In a rebuttal to that evaluation, Wright described how one of his bosses had renewed a permit for a “land farm” over Wright’s objections. A land farm is the term used for a commercial operation where waste from oil and gas extraction is spread on top of the ground.
Wright said the permit should have been denied because samples of the contaminated waste that was to be spread on the land “exceeded the level that would classify the material as hazardous waste,” making it “ineligible for land farming.”
A 2012 evaluation again praised Wright’s knowledge of commission rules but suggested he should “continue to improve relations with operators.”
When industry members complained about Wright, his boss was quick to respond, as reflected in a 2012 email exchange between the operations manager of a company that plugged old wells and Wright’s boss at the time, Charlie Teague.
“Every time we call in to get a variance from Fred he comes up with some very different and costly methods that are not practical for plugging operations,” the operator wrote to Teague. Teague did not respond to an InsideClimate News request for comment.
Teague later sent Wright an email saying Wright would no longer be reviewing that company’s work. Teague and two other commission inspectors would now handle the job, Wright was told. The email offered no explanation for the change.
Wright responded with an email to Teague: “I don’t see any justification for me being excluded [from] handling plugging operations in my areas of responsibility, based on an unsupported claim from a plugging company.”
Teague replied: “I have to allow an operator or plugger a way to appeal when he believes our requirements are unreasonable.”