Chrysta Castañeda (Democratic) and Jim Wright (Republican)

Remember 2019, when people used to hang out? When the global youth climate movement hit its stride, worldwide electric-vehicle sales crested 2 million and, in Texas, wind-powered energy generation leapt ahead to meet nearly 17 percent of the state’s electricity needs? When clean energy and conservation themes were at last creeping out of the shadows and even grabbing some headlines? Good times.

Then came 2020, and, well…

When you have a full-on pandemic with a running tally of nearly 220,000 dead, the worst job losses since the Great Depression and an economy in tatters, folks’ priorities will indeed shift. In that desperate scenario, the basics – like not dying and eating – are suddenly something to ponder. Even with 2020’s historic wildfires and alarming tropical-storm development, recent polls show concern about the climate has taken a seat in the way-back for many Americans, with healthcare and economic issues now riding shotgun.

An exception can be found in a down-ballot statewide race that is likely to get scant notice amid the overheated presidential and senatorial contests.

On Nov. 3, one of three seats is up for grabs on the Railroad Commission of Texas, the obscure yet powerful panel that has nothing to do with railroads but is responsible for regulating the oil and natural gas industry of the country’s most energy-rich state. The commissioners serve six-year, staggered terms.

A focus of this year’s election is methane venting and flaring at wells, two longstanding practices within the industry that are often lumped together under the “flaring” heading, and are under increasing scrutiny for the polluting chemicals and greenhouse gases they release into the atmosphere. (As a greenhouse gas, methane is anywhere from 28 to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.)

Industry-friendly reputation

The Railroad Commission has a reputation for routinely granting venting and flaring requests without much discussion, even though any of the commissioners can require a hearing for such a request. Flaring is normally a cost-avoidance practice, but is sometimes implemented as a safety measure.

Four candidates, representing the Republican, Democratic, Green and Libertarian parties, are on the ballot, with some more vocal than others about the venting/flaring controversy. Regardless of who wins, the days of unchecked methane releases and gas flaring may be numbered, with a more closely monitored and regulated system on the way, says Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, a fellow at the university’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“I think we’ll see a move in that direction primarily due to a realization among some actors in the oil and gas industry that if they don’t introduce moderate reforms themselves, they’re likely to face more severe regulation restrictions from the federal government, especially because more likely than not, we’ll have a Biden administration,” Jones said, citing the Democrats’ more hands-on approach to environmental policing and promises to attack climate change.

“So, one way to play defense is to go onto the offense against something that is as clear-cut as flaring, which is very unpopular with the general public and is tough to defend. It’s solely being done to pad the bottom line of energy and natural gas companies. It’s not something that has to occur. It is preventable. It’s just that you have to spend money to prevent it.”

Jones believes that, in an effort to preserve natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” the biggest producers will assume a leadership role in the inevitable transition to tighter regulation of flaring and venting, with some smaller players being dragged along more or less unwillingly. He thinks the Railroad Commission will have no other choice than to follow that industry lead.

“What we’re starting to see, especially in terms of the super-majors like Chevron and ExxonMobil, is that they’re actually supportive of regulations of flaring because they realize that it is an Achilles’ heel of the oil and natural gas industry, a very easy thing for opponents of fracking to point out as one of the reasons that we should ban fracking,” Jones said. “So, if you want to keep fracking from being banned or regulated to death, you have to heal yourself, or essentially be proactive in addressing some of the more egregious issues you have, one of which is flaring.”

(The fracking debate is not confined to Texas, as President Donald Trump falsely accuses former Vice President Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, of wanting to ban the controversial drilling technique. The Associated Press fact-checked the accusation and concluded it is “a myth.”)

Jones predicts that the Railroad Commission will join influential players like the Texas Oil & Gas Association and the giant multinational producers in a coordinated move to reduce flaring and venting. Opposition will bubble up from some smaller companies that lack the resources to address it, but those who resist the tougher regulations could suffer, he said. “If they don’t, somebody is going to do it for them, and they’re probably going to do it in a much more severe way that would adversely affect the fracking even more.”

Debating the methane issue

All of the Railroad Commission candidates have something to say about environmental concerns in general, and flaring and venting in particular.

Where Democratic hopeful Chrysta Castañeda and Green Party candidate Katija Gruene are laser-focused on redirecting the commission’s path away from its historic laissez-faire environmental positions, Republican Jim Wright (no relation to the late U.S. House Speaker) and Libertarian Matt Sterett are more attuned to improving the commission’s efficiency and keeping the Texas oil and gas industry healthy.

Wright applauds the performance of fellow Republican Railroad Commissioners Wayne Christian and Christi Craddick, and says he would be the “perfect complement” to their administration. Wright would focus his tenure on streamlining communications to Texas residents and educating the public about the importance of the oil and gas industry to Texas. He says he would work to ensure that the industry is adhering to environmental regulations and “better prepare the commission to weather the unpredictable economic trends of industry.”

Unlike his opponents, Wright views “responsible flaring” as an integral and important part of the oil and gas industry, and says there is a key distinction about its regulation that is regularly overlooked.

“There is a lot of discussion regarding flaring and emissions these days, and it’s becoming clear that some people might not realize that the Railroad Commission does not have jurisdiction over emissions, and while the Railroad Commission can permit for the flaring of natural gas, the regulation of emissions belongs to the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality),” Wright said, asserting that the industry recognizes the importance of “capturing every available molecule of natural gas” whenever possible.

“Often times anti-industry groups, and folks like my [Democratic] opponent, like to trend negative on this topic without paying much attention to the overwhelmingly positive facts surrounding this issue. For instance, recent data collected by the Railroad Commission demonstrates that routine flaring was proactively down across the board. In fact, in May 2020, only 0.47 percent of natural gas produced in Texas was flared,” he said.

Wright says he supports renewable energy “when economics work, and one day they might,” but he believes Green New Deal-style policies threaten the state’s fossil-fuel industry and would kill jobs. “The oil and gas industry as a whole believes in sustainable energy and are here to keep the lights on for Texas and Texas’ economy until the technology gap can be bridged,” he said.

Democratic candidate Castañeda takes a less sanguine view of the flaring and venting issue. “Flaring is the intentional wasting of our natural gas resources and has been illegal for over 100 years, yet oil companies lit on fire enough natural gas to power the City of Houston in 2019,” said Castañeda, an engineer and attorney who has worked “in and around” the oil and gas industry for three decades.

“When the current commission fails to enforce our laws, it comes with significant environmental, health and economic consequences.”

She says the problem’s scope is plainly illustrated by the number of flaring permits the commission has allowed in recent history. “They granted 27,000 exception permits to flare in the past seven years alone. Rather than wasting that gas, we could be generating electricity right there in the Permian [Basin], powering oil operations and putting the excess into the power grid,” Castañeda said, adding that she believes flaring should be reduced to the point of nonexistence, except when necessary for safety reasons.

She also would go after venting and “fugitive” methane emissions – those that escape from equipment, tanks or elsewhere in the production chain. Intentional venting is illegal, but the rules are not enforced, she said, adding that those practices reduce air quality and are an outsized driver of climate change. Existing regulations could mitigate significant amounts of illegal methane releases, but only if they are enforced, she said.

Castañeda’s other priorities include supporting industry jobs and company stability by using “the tools the Railroad Commission has at its disposal,” and directing federal stimulus money toward putting unemployed workers back on the job plugging abandoned wells. She says they are many times more likely to leak and pollute than producing wells. Castañeda supports the ongoing development of renewable energy such as wind and solar in Texas, but believes oil and gas will continue to comprise a major portion of our energy supply.

One repeating theme of her campaign is Railroad Commission fines levied against Wright’s business, DeWitt Recyclable Products, for improperly storing oilfield waste. “My Republican opponent has been cited repeatedly and fined by the commission he wants to lead,” Castañeda said.

It’s a charge that Wright rejects. “Let me be very clear: I didn’t own the company when it was cited by the commission, and when I repossessed the company from those who purchased the facility, I went above and beyond in bringing it back into compliance. Period. End of story,” he said.

The Trump effect

Katija Gruene (Green) and Matt Sterett (Libertarian)

Green Party candidate Katija Gruene shares some fundamental ideas with Castañeda, but thinks fossil-fuel economies are headed for extinction, and favors accelerating that inevitability. Gruene supports impeding further development of oil, gas, coal and nuclear projects to make them “unprofitable,” and speeding up the adoption of renewable energy.

A former educator and past Green Party state co-chair, Gruene says her main goals if elected include capping “the hundreds of abandoned wells,” analyzing existing permits for the potential of enforcing existing regulations, and possibly revoking those that are causing harm to communities.

She also would determine where new regulations are needed to close loopholes for the benefit of Texas citizens and the environment. Gruene says she would seek a way to restructure the commission’s operating procedures to ensure the public interest is served first, with transparency given top priority.

Regarding methane flaring and venting, Gruene believes the practice should be reserved solely for the prevention of catastrophes.

Flaring is among Sterett’s two top concerns, the other being fixing the Railroad Commission’s data systems, which he says are not able to tie in to the state comptroller’s tax data. Sterett’s unease with flaring arises less from its environmental impact than its sheer wastefulness.

“Long story short, there’s been a group of bad actors – a minority, but still meaningful – committing a kind of accounting fraud, that has the negative externality of excessively flaring gas,” said Sterett, a software company operator and oil-and-gas investor.

“These bad actors have been donors to the current slate of Railroad Commissioners. The Railroad Commission’s mandate includes upholding Sec. 91.015 of the Texas Natural Resources Code, which includes ‘prevention of waste.’ The Railroad Commission hasn’t done anything to stop this.”

Sterett believes business-as-usual on the commission ultimately could lead to a worst-case scenario in which the country’s very security is threatened.

The year 2020 is likely to be remembered as one of the wildest and most capricious on record. Will it also be the year Republicans finally cede a Railroad Commission seat to another party? In Texas, where no Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994, the Republican candidate normally would be a shoo-in. But having a polarizing incumbent president on the ballot is putting a different spin on the race.

“I think we’ll see a pretty major effect of Donald Trump,” said Jones, the Rice political science professor. “If Trump was not at the top of the ticket, then [Republican] Jim Wright would be a virtual lock to be elected. It’s Donald Trump’s presence at the top of the ballot that’s dragging most Texas Republicans down and making this race more competitive than it otherwise would be.”

All things being equal, Jones says he would still expect Wright to eke out a victory. “But unlike in past elections, it’s not a lock.”


John Kent is a contributing editor of Texas Climate News.

Image credits: Candidates’ campaigns