Elections 2020EnergyDemocrats in Railroad Commission Race See Opportunity After GOP Primary Upset

Texas Democrats have not held a statewide position in over 20 years, but after an encouraging 2018 midterm election, some see opportunity in the Railroad Commission race.
July 9, 2020
The last time a Democrat won election to the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) was 1990.

But after a 2018 election in which Democrats made strong gains on the Republican majority and came closer to sending one of their own to the  U.S. Senate, and the well-funded incumbent, Ryan Sitton, was shockingly upset in the 2020 GOP primary by political upstart, Jim Wright, Texas Democrats are looking to grab hold of a statewide elected seat.

Democrats haven’t held statewide office since Texas political giant Bob Bullock retired from his position as lieutenant governor in 1999.

The two candidates, both from Dallas, vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination are energy sector attorney Chrysta Castañeda and former State Representative Roberto “Beto” Alonzo.

In the primary, Castañeda finished first over Alonzo by about five percent, amounting to about 92,000 votes.

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The body to which both aspire regulates the state’s most profitable sector: oil and gas. It approves drilling and facility permits and tracks production of the state’s oil and gas producers.

About why she decided to run, Castañeda told The Texan, “The Railroad Commission can do a better job fulfilling its responsibilities.”

Castañeda, who has been in the race since October, has worked in and around the oil and gas industry for 30 years as an engineer and attorney. She has been endorsed by a bevy of progressive organizations such as Progress Texas and Emily’s List, as well as a handful of newspapers.

“The number one job of the Texas Railroad Commission is to preserve our natural resources,” Castañeda added.

The other two “key mandates” she pointed to were protecting the environment and ensuring the health and safety of those near the oil and gas operations.

Alonzo offered a different reason for his joining the race: the man with whom he shares a nickname, “Beto.”

“He opened our eyes to show us we could do this,” Alonzo said about making Texas competitive. He reiterated his belief that the RRC could benefit from a Democratic perspective and said the time is now to flip one of the seats.

“We don’t need more oil and gas people on the Railroad Commission,” he added.

With 20 years of experience in the Texas Legislature, Alonzo stressed what he may lack in industry wonkery, he makes up for in governing experience.

Castañeda continued, saying, “The current commissioners are not enforcing the laws Texans have long deemed necessary.”

Some of those laws, she added, include flaring restrictions and environmental protections.

Flaring has become a hot-button issue in Texas’ Permian Basin. Environmental groups have ramped up complaints against producers for what they deem as illegal flaring capacities. Companies obtain permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and then must self-report emissions events that stray from planned amounts.

The environmental groups, however, assert that TCEQ is neither properly monitoring these producers nor effectively punishing them. But it is not clear that TCEQ is abrogating their enforcement responsibilities.

“The Railroad Commission has a responsibility to keep the industry inside the lines along the highway,” Castañeda added.

Further on flaring, Castañeda sees it as a waste of potential energy. The more gas, mostly methane, escapes, the more potential natural gas supply is lost. Producers are often left with a dilemma wherein it is too costly to transport the excess gas to processing plants than the gas is worth, and so they flare it rather than simply release it into the atmosphere.

One of the things entrenching that dilemma is the obstruction of pipeline construction by environmental groups and localities. The pipelines could increase the cost-efficiency of transporting the excess natural gas to processing plants rather than flaring it. But those in opposition believe the effects of pipelines, both in assumed air pollution and physical environmental disturbance negate any benefits cheaper energy provides.

On flaring, Alonzo stated that he intends to look closely at the issue and “Where [the oil and gas companies] are doing okay, good. But where it needs to be stopped, they’ve got to be stopped.”

Another focus for Castañeda is on water use by these oil and gas production companies — specifically regarding fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process by which a mixture of water and chemicals is pumped into a well, which then breaks apart shale rock formations to release the oil and gas trapped within.

Fracking is one of the biggest innovations that turned a world worried about reaching “Peak Oil” into one in which cheap, reliable energy became plentiful for consumers. Some, however, insist fracking has caused contamination of water supplies and thus have looked to stymie its use.

Castañeda, meanwhile, wants to see oil and gas companies reuse the water supplies for fracking, rather than pulling in new water.

Alonzo pointed to another issue in which he finds great importance: funding of the RRC. The body’s funding is largely tied to oil and gas production-related fees, and since those have cratered along with the production decrease, the budget may be cut significantly.

To preserve the funding Alonzo deems necessary to accomplish the reforms he’s eyeing, he first wants to transition the RRC’s funding source from industry revenues to the state’s general fund.

Some funding comes from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which will likely see a dip in its balance after the market instability of the last few months.

But a shift of that sort would require legislative action, which Alonzo could act as a lobbying voice for, but wouldn’t be able to act on himself if elected.

A final priority Castañeda listed was to provide financial ability to plug unused wells. The number of oil and gas wells being utilized has decreased during the pandemic as transportation, and thus petroleum demand, has dropped. With this comes a bevy of wells that are no longer in use.

Unplugged wells can allow gas to emanate from the hole in which it resides and is a growing emissions concern with potentially explosive consequences. Castañeda wants to more thoroughly plug unused wells and clean out the drilling infrastructure that is no longer in use.

“Generally speaking, I am in favor of starting where we are and enforcing regulations that are already on the books,” she underscored.

Earlier this year, the RRC came under the national, and sometimes international, spotlight during a debate over whether or not to artificially limit the industry’s production levels —  known as prorationing.

The debate was sparked by the dramatic drop in oil prices caused by travel diminution as the pandemic spread, an Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production dispute which flooded the world market with more supply, and the lack of storage capacity for incoming supply.

Lame-duck Commissioner Ryan Sitton championed the idea which had not been implemented in 50 years but pulled the motion to consider after sufficient support failed to materialize. However, a strange alliance of producers, former regulators, and environmentalists did materialize to support the measure.

Castañeda said she supported prorationing as a stopgap measure during what was an extraordinary set of circumstances but was most concerned that the RRC was not prepared to implement such a program, should they even decide to utilize it. 

“With the prorationing, just like a pandemic, even though you’re not dealing with a pandemic every day, you need to have engaged in the planning exercises that you might be facing,” she concluded.

Alonzo also supported prorationing but further stated he was encouraged that the industry was beginning to limit its own production without being directed to by the commission.

In the primary, Castañeda narrowly took the pair’s home county of Dallas by fewer than 2,000 votes. In another somewhat close outcome, in the energy hub that is Houston and Harris County, she emerged victorious by 7,638 votes.

A majority of her 90,000-vote margin came from Travis County, wherein Castañeda received 67,000 more votes than Alonzo.

Alonzo, meanwhile, captured the Rio Grande Valley by 14,000 votes.

Outside of the top five most populated counties (Harris, Bexar, Dallas, Travis, and Tarrant), the two candidates finished neck and neck. Only 452 votes separated Alonzo and Castañeda, with the latter receiving the slight edge.

In the runoff, Castañeda has found campaigning to be a bit easier post-coronavirus. Rather than having to traverse the second-largest state in the country, campaign events have moved online and thus enable her to reach multiple communities, in opposite ends of the state, in one night — something that would be physically impossible in-person.

Where it’s been more difficult is in fundraising efforts and the face-to-face contact with voters. However, Castañeda is optimistic these activities can be resumed in the fall.

Alonzo, during his campaign, has been endorsed by organizations such as the AFL-CIO, Tejano Democrats, Mexican-American Democrats of Texas, and his primary opponent Mark Watson.

He told The Texan, “I want to be the cherry on top of the banana split for Texas Democrats to turn the state blue. Candidate Biden has made it clear this state is a battleground and my race is one part of that.”

At the July 6 deadline, Castañeda reported $43,000 raised with just over $16,000 cash-on-hand, while Alonzo raised just shy of $15,000 and has almost $13,000 left on-hand.

With less than a week before the election, both candidates are making their final case to voters, and whoever emerges victorious will face Republican Jim Wright who had the benefit of avoiding a runoff, waiting on the path to November.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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.