Last year, Texas Democrats went all-in trying to flip a seat on the Railroad Commission (RRC), the state agency that regulates the prolific oil and gas industry.
A united push behind Democrat Chrysta Castañeda, buttressed by a $2 million donation from Michael Bloomberg, yielded the familiar result for statewide Democrats: an overwhelming loss and a return to the political wilderness.
“This Little-Known 2020 Race In Texas Could Shift Fossil Fuel Politics,” read an article title from the progressive Huffington Post in February of last year — about two weeks before political unknown Jim Wright’s GOP primary upset of incumbent Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.
Wright went on to beat Castañeda handily and currently serves on the RRC.
This year, the Huffington Post decided to rinse and repeat, publishing an article titled “This Obscure Texas Race Could Have A Big Impact On Climate Change.”
The challenger profiled this time is Luke Warford, a Democratic activist and former staffer for the Texas Democratic Party.
“The Texas Railroad Commission is the most important climate election in the country,” Warford says in his announcement video.
“When the power went out last winter, where were the (RRC) commissioners? They were helping their friends make billions and passing the costs onto the rest of us while we were freezing in our homes.”
During the storm, gas and electricity prices soared due to their scarcity. Depending on which side of the transactions they fell, this left some companies awash in insurmountable debt and others seeing record windfalls. The remedy selected by both the Texas legislature and the RRC was securitization: above-market rate government loans to companies in debt that allow them to defray the costs of repayment over decades rather than months.
Customers have already begun to see surcharges added to their electricity bills that will generally carry on for two years. But these charges are in the tens of dollars rather than hundreds or even thousands of dollars that would be necessary to quickly pay off the debt some of the companies owe. An alternative is for them to go bankrupt like the Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, the largest electricity cooperative in the state.
Warford, along with his fellow Democrats, is banking much of his electoral hopes on a repeat of last February. But betting on another 100-year storm a year later is a longshot.
Christian, hoping to secure his second term on the RRC, was first elected in 2016. After failing to defeat Sitton in the primary runoff two years earlier, Christian defeated current state Rep. Gary Gates (R-Richmond) five years ago for an empty seat.
Since last February, Christian has defended the oil and gas industry from criticism and has blasted the state’s increasing focus on renewable energy which is more intermittent than thermal sources of energy.
“[W]ind and solar can sell their power at negative prices and still make a profit because of generous tax credits from the federal government,” Christian told The Texan in an emailed comment. “All this gives wind and solar energy producers a massive economic advantage, allowing them to make money whether they are successful or not.”
Renewable sources account for a quarter of the state’s power grid capacity. During the storm, all sources failed to one extent or another. More natural gas generation tripped offline than any other source, but during the storm it outperformed its share of the grid capacity, generating over two thirds of the electricity.
During the same period, renewable generation waned to a fraction of its installed capacity — at some points disappearing entirely.
Christian’s platform emphasizes the state’s prolific oil and gas output, an industry responsible for employing hundreds of thousands of Texans. He also touts the improvements made in the state’s emissions and gas flaring. Texas has seen steady decreases in the amount of gas emitted and flared per barrel of oil produced — meaning, the industry is getting more efficient every year with what it produces, reducing the amount of wasted product.
But after Wright’s upset last year, no GOP incumbent will overlook a primary like Sitton did. Christian faces four Republicans: oil and gas consultant and member of the prominent Houston oil family Tom Slocum, deep-water driller Dawayne Tipton, founder of Oilfield Connections International Marvin “Sarge” Summers, and attorney Sarah Stogner.
Slocum, probably the most formidable candidate of the field, says, “I will fight for border security and I’ll make sure we finish building the wall.”
“As one of the chief regulatory agencies in the state, we will make sure that securing our state is the top priority. We must finish the wall in order to protect our residents and our vital energy infrastructure from the undeniable threat that weak border security promises.”
Those candidates trying to replicate Wright’s 2020 surprise have two things working against them: first, none of the candidates share the name of a Texas political legend and onetime speaker of the U.S. House like Wright did, and second, Christian has not been forthright about any disdain for Donald Trump, still the face of the GOP.
Sitton wrote an editorial titled “Time to Fire Donald Trump” when the now-former president was still running for the GOP nomination in 2015. Wright’s campaign used this against the incumbent to a remarkable effect.
Meanwhile, no similar comparison exists for Christian who has been an outspoken supporter of the former president.
Being the first after the 2020 winter storm, next year’s race for Texas Railroad Commission features new wrinkles and similar themes as the last go-around.
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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.