AUSTIN, Texas — Texas’ chief oil and gas regulator was on vacation in the critical days surrounding Hurricane Harvey as her agency grappled with fuel shortages and scrambled to respond to refinery spills caused by the storm, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
Kimberly Corley’s work calendar listed her as on vacation for 11 days in a two-week span before and after Harvey came ashore Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane. The former Shell Oil executive was named in December 2015 as executive director of the peculiarly named Texas Railroad Commission, which has nothing to do with trains but is responsible for enforcement of the state’s oil and gas industry.
Corley abruptly stepped down last week. Reached by phone Wednesday, she said she had been in Big Bend, a popular camping getaway on the Texas-Mexico border. She said she was engaged in the storm response while away, adding that Harvey wasn’t mentioned in a meeting with the agency’s chairwoman that preceded her resignation.
“Harvey never came up in the conversation,” Corley said. “Nothing related to performance came up in the meeting. I was active and available.”
She was paid $180,000 a year overseeing the small agency, which has long faced criticism for lacking transparency and being too cozy with the drillers and producers it is tasked with keeping in line.
During Harvey, the commission had a presence in the state’s emergency operation center while responding to tank spills at refineries and reassuring the public there was plenty of fuel. Long gas lines were a common sight in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. as Harvey caused energy prices to rise and drivers pumped stations dry.
According to Corley’s calendar, she had no scheduled phone calls or meetings in the two days before Harvey struck as the most powerful hurricane to hit in the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She had “Hurricane Harvey Update” calls listed on both the Friday the storm made landfall and Saturday, when Harvey parked over Houston and began dumping a record 50-plus inches of rain.
Corley is shown having multiple meetings Aug. 28-30 before taking vacation again Aug. 31 through the Labor Day weekend.
But it wasn’t until an unusually tense and heated public meeting of the agency’s three-member board last week that problems surrounding Corley became apparent. Chairwoman Christi Craddick, a Republican who is Texas’ only female elected statewide official, was pointedly challenged by fellow commissioner Ryan Sitton about Corley’s status.
Sitton told Craddick “this isn’t a dictatorship” as Craddick rebuffed questions about Corley. Escalating the feud further, Sitton has since asked the Texas attorney general’s office whether Craddick violated open meetings laws and exceeded her power in her handling of Corley.
Jared Craighead, Sitton’s chief of staff, defended Corley and said her physical absence did not affect the agency’s preparations or response to Harvey.
“Kim was available the entire time,” Craighead said. “It was regular interaction. In this 21st century world of technology, any of us can be on emails or conference calls from pretty much anywhere.”
Craddick has said the agency needed to move in a different direction but her office has not elaborated on why Corley was let go.
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