Elections 2022EnergyControversy, Conflict Define Sarah Stogner’s Weird and Wild Bid for Texas Railroad Commission

During her race, Stogner has been accused of holding beliefs antithetical to her party's while taking aim at the oil and gas establishment.
May 19, 2022
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Dark horse candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission, Sarah Stogner, attributes her political rise to two assets, neither of which were flaunted in her infamous campaign video.

An oil and gas attorney, Stogner cites her educational background and industry experience in her challenge to Republican incumbent Wayne Christian. She edged her way into the GOP primary runoff by about 10,000 votes over third-place finisher Tom Slocum, while the field prevented Christian from eclipsing 50 percent.

The challenger hopes to replicate current Commissioner Jim Wright’s 2020 primary upset over then-incumbent Ryan Sitton — and because the agency is so unrecognizable to most voters, it can be primed for electoral shocks.

Despite its name, the RRC no longer has much to do with railroads and instead regulates Texas’ vaunted oil and gas industry.

Stogner rocketed from obscurity to brief national celebrity upon release of a primary early voting video in which the candidate posed nearly nude atop an oil pumpjack. The viral video was enough for her to top the challenger field in what has been the wildest race in Texas this year.

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“Addressing the elephant in the room,” Stogner told a collection of oil and gas industry executives in March, “I got mostly naked on a pumpjack…and it’s the reason I’m here today, the reason I’m in the runoff. Now let’s talk about the real issues.”

Those issues Stogner has focused on include securing orphaned oil wells, whose drilling shafts can come uncapped and leak pollutants into the surrounding area; increasing transparency in the agency’s dense bureaucracy; and preparing for whatever lies ahead for Texas’ energy industry.

Brash and abrasive, Stogner is quick to challenge her opponent and critics however she can: on Twitter, the debate stage, and face-to-face.

In an interview with The Texan, Stogner pulled no punches against Christian, declaring, “He’s a career politician with no oil and gas experience who takes bribes.”

“I’m an oil and gas lawyer living on a cattle ranch with no political aspirations, willing to take a pay cut and move to Austin because I think it’s the moral thing to do.”

Christian, elected to the RRC in 2016 after two non-consecutive four-term stints in the state House, makes his living as a financial services advisor.

He’s backed by some of the state’s biggest Republican figures like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, former Governor Rick Perry, and the two other commissioners. He is also supported by a variety of oil and gas organizations.

In a television ad, Stogner’s campaign denounced Christian for taking financial support from “the same companies he regulates.”

As Stogner maintains a constant barrage of attacks, Christian’s campaign has returned fire, knocking her for political opinions she has expressed in the past. These incude voicing support for increased background checks and “common sense controls” for firearms; opposing the Texas legislature’s prohibition on teaching critical race theory in schools; and criticizing the state’s legislation restricting abortion.

Stogner explained, “I hadn’t been planning on running for office and so I didn’t go scrub my social media account.”

Using the Heartbeat Bill criticism as an example, Stogner noted she is personally pro-life but believes the state’s laws will be ineffective and backfire on their intentions.

In both ads running during the runoff’s home stretch, Stogner labeled herself a conservative. When asked how she can square that label with her opinions expressed before running for office, Stogner answered, “Just because I question the way we go about things doesn’t mean that I don’t have conservative values.”

While those issues don’t pertain much to the everyday duties of the Railroad Commission, they do play into the electoral contest. In 2020, Wright carved a role for issues like abortion and immigration into his primary upset.

“[A]t the end of the day,” Stogner added, “I believe in small government, fiscal responsibility… and that the government’s job is to not protect us from ourselves, but protect our rights to protect ourselves.”

“From day one, my opponent has been dishonest,” Christian countered in a statement to The Texan.

“She claims to be conservative, when she donated to Beto O’Rourke and openly mocked the Republican Party Platform for years on Twitter. She claims to support oil and gas, while advocating for increased regulations and costs being passed onto consumers. She claims she won’t accept contributions, only to take $2 million from a single donor with business before the Railroad Commission.”

Stogner donated $25 to O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign, which she claims was a joke to obtain a campaign t-shirt that she supposedly never received. But she also tweeted out support for his governor candidacy, along with Matthew McConaughey’s for lieutenant governor.

After touting her across-the-board refusal of campaign donations during the race, one donor purchased $2 million worth of television ads on Stogner’s behalf this week, running through election day.

That donor is West Texas rancher Ashley Watt, formerly Andrew Watt, who also gave money to other GOP primary challengers Slocum and Dawayne Tipton. 

Watt, a legacy to an oil-related and ranching fortune, has scrapped with the Railroad Commission over alleged neglect of contaminating orphaned oil wells on the Watt family ranch and across the state. Stogner lives on Watt’s ranch and serves as the rancher’s legal counsel.

Orphaned wells is one of many areas over which Stogner thinks the Railroad Commission needs to apply more regulatory oversight.

That oversight, she contends, is needed for the oil and gas industry to get its house in order before the anti-fossil fuel movement wins the political messaging battle.

“My opponent is out there continuing with the rhetoric that climate change is a hoax and, look, the Green New Deal is not the answer,” she said. “But just saying the green New Deal is not the answer, and that climate change isn’t real, that’s not reality — we do have climate change.”

If that isn’t addressed, Stogner states, the consequences won’t simply be a couple degree rise in global temperature, “we’re not going to have potable groundwater and we’ll lose the West Texas water resources.”

Historically, statewide incumbents pushed to primary runoffs have a strong, but not unblemished, track record of winning. Yet, a Stogner victory would be among the least bizarre aspects of this peculiar race.

But she is running in a GOP primary with an unusual array of political positions for a Republican and an unorthodox locus, scolding the industry that accounts for one of the largest sectors of the Texas economy.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.