As President Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, spar over energy issues, policy specifics could have profound implications in a close battleground race for a Houston-based congressional seat.
Often referred to as the energy capital of the world, Texas’ 7th Congressional District encompasses much of Houston’s Energy Corridor and is home to headquarters or major operations for BP America, ConocoPhillips, Citgo, and similar companies. Consequently, residents of the district are largely employed either directly or indirectly by the energy industry.
After a decisive victory in a 6-way primary last Spring, Republican Wesley Hunt is challenging freshman Incumbent Lizzie Fletcher for a chance to represent the district for the next two years.
Fletcher, who flipped the traditionally Republican seat to the Democrat column in 2018, has sought to portray herself as a moderate voice in an increasingly left-tilting Democratic party. She has espoused support for more middle-ground policy on energy and has carefully avoided publicly siding with the more extreme proposals from within her party.
The Hunt campaign’s messaging, however, says that Fletcher is trying to cover up a liberal voting record on a number of issues, including on energy policies that could be detrimental to the district’s economy.
Hunt often accuses Fletcher of marching in lockstep with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and notes that she was among those who voted to impeach the president earlier this year. Last month in a press release he called Fletcher out for allowing “Pelosi to strip funding for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve” (SPR) from the CARES Act, which he said would have helped the energy industry at the height of problems exacerbated by COVID-19 economic restrictions.
Although the president called for the SPR to be filled last March, only Congress can actually authorize the funding to do so. When proposed, the SPR had a 77 million barrel capacity available.
An initial version of the CARES Act included $3 billion to purchase oil at competitive pricing as oil futures began a long slide that would bottom out in negative territory, but Democrats in both chambers sought to prevent any assistance for what they termed “big oil.”
Instead, the federal government authorized oil and gas companies to store their oversupply in the SPR when private storage capacities maxed out and caused the price scare of April when oil prices dropped to negative values.
Analysts say the oil and gas industry has lost an estimated 118,000 jobs between March and July, with nearly 40,000 of those in the State of Texas. ExxonMobil, headquartered in Irving, is expected to lose more than $1 billion this year.
Fletcher did vote for the CARES Act offering economic relief to some businesses and industries, but her role in eliminating the SPR funds is uncertain.
Last year, Fletcher voted for the Climate Action Now Act which would enforce U.S. cooperation with the conditions imposed by the 2015 Paris Agreement signed by then-President Obama.
Opponents of the agreement assert that the requirement to cut U.S. carbon emissions 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 is technologically unattainable and that even attempting to do so would be detrimental to American jobs and the economy.
President Trump announced last year that the U.S. would withdraw from the controversial agreement by November of 2020.
Fletcher has been skittish about committing to specific policy proposals from the far-left such as those from New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, but has also publicly stated that it is “important to talk about the ideas in the Green New Deal.”
At one of her town hall events earlier this year, Fletcher also told constituents that the 2018 IPCC Report on climate change is “very alarming,” but did not commit to any recommended actions from the IPCC. Likewise, Fletcher noted that while she did not sign on to controversial carbon tax legislation in 2019, she added, “I think there’s a lot of merit.”
Fletcher has not yet made any public pronouncements regarding Biden’s recently unveiled energy plan, which will likely have significant impact on the Texas economy as it phases out fracking and drilling on federal lands, returns the U.S. to restrictions imposed by the Paris Agreement, and introduces carbon-neutral mandates on cities.
Hunt called Biden’s plan “a disaster for Texas’ energy industry.”
“It cuts thousands of jobs and forces millions of Americans to rely on intermittent, unaffordable, and unreliable energy,” said Hunt. “They openly admit that millions of workers will be negatively impacted by their proposal.”
Biden’s plan specifically mentions that ‘unemployed energy workers’ will be fixtures of the future economy, and at least one analysis says the drilling phase-out alone could eliminate 120,000 Texas jobs.
The Texan requested comment on the Biden Energy Plan from the Fletcher campaign but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Fletcher has embraced Biden’s choice of Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate, and wrote on social media that she was “thrilled to see such a strong ticket with leaders who will fight for every American.”
Harris has been a vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, but voted “present” on the legislation when Majority Leader Mitch McConnel brought it up for a Senate vote in his effort to force Democrats to go on the record regarding the controversial bill.
Hunt says that while Fletcher is careful to avoid commitment to specific Green New Deal policies, voters should be concerned about her support for the Biden-Harris ticket and consider how she will likely vote under Pelosi’s leadership.
In August, Hunt publicly challenged Fletcher to engage in two debates prior to the early voting period which begins on October 13.
This week Fletcher announced she would participate in a debate hosted by Houston Public Media and the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston that had been planned since August. A press release from her campaign states that the debate will be streamed by KUHF 88.7 and include “a robust agenda…personal statements, an independent facilitator, and a moderated discussion without time restrictions.” The date and time have not yet been provided.
The two candidates have also recently sparred on health care policy, and while Hunt has signed Governor Greg Abbott’s “Back the Blue” pledge to oppose efforts to defund police, Fletcher has not. Fletcher is a co-sponsor of the Justice in Policing Act, a police reform bill introduced by the Congressional Black Caucus that passed the House last summer.
Cook Political Report rates the district as “leans Democrat,” and a Remington Research Group poll from March indicated the candidates were tied at 45-45.
UPDATE: After publication, the Fletcher campaign responded to requests from The Texan defending her position on energy issues. The campaign pointed to an op-ed by Rep. Fletcher in opposition to the overall theme of the Green New Deal saying it “relies too much on top-down, government solutions that will deepen partisan divisions, harm our economy, and squander our unique opportunity to get this right.”
Fletcher wrote that achieving net-zero emissions by 2030 is likely impossible, and instead argues for a return to the Paris Climate Agreement — a proposal also pushed for within the Green New Deal.
An additional op-ed co-written with Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) voiced opposition to a bill that would block offshore drilling, and Fletcher wrote a letter in opposition to a moratorium on the processing of new natural gas pipeline permits.
The campaign also pointed to Fletcher’s opposition to Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed fracking ban. H.R. 5857 was introduced by Ocasio-Cortez last February but has not moved past referral to committees.
Although SPR funding was stripped from the CARES Act, Fletcher’s campaign says she later introduced a separate bill for $3 billion in SPR funding that garnered bipartisan support. H.R. 6580 has been referred to committees, but is considered highly unlikely to progress under Speaker Pelosi’s control of the House.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.