If you were near the Mount Carmel Apartments in East Austin on a recent sunny morning, you might have spotted an unlikely celebrity in a small crowd gathered on the lawn.
Jane Fonda had come to talk politics.
“I feel like I’m using my platform well,” she told KUT after making remarks to the group of residents, activists and Democratic politicians. “I kind of reinvigorate campaigns that are now a bit tired.”
Fonda was also there to bring money from his climate change-focused political action committee to state political races and to spur votes for Democrats. There was one campaign in particular she wanted to talk about.
“I find there are these offices that wield tremendous power when it comes to climate,” she said with a chuckle, “like the Railroad Commission.”
Despite the old-fashioned sounding name, a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission has been called one of the most important climate-related offices in the country. This is because the agency does not regulate the railways; it regulates oil and gas in the state.
The two main contenders for this year’s race for commissioner are incumbent Republican Wayne Christian and Democrat Luke Warford.
Christian is a former gospel singer turned financial advisor turned lifelong Texas politician. Warford is a former business consultant and Democratic Party staffer who wants to be the first Democrat on the commission since 1994, when Mary Scott Nabers lost to Carole Keeton Rylander (now Strayhorn).
This year, he says, his party has a chance.
“In many ways, this election cycle for this race is totally unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Warford says, “because the issues are much more visible on people’s faces.”
These issues include: the blackout in Texas last year (caused in large part by problems along the natural gas supply chain that the commission regulates); the role that large industry donations play in the policy decisions of the Board of Railway Commissioners; the current high price of natural gas; and the common practice of gas flaring in Texas oil fields, which wastes gas and pollutes the environment.
“There’s this really consistent story of regulatory capture and vested interests having total power and control here,” Warford said. Railway commissioners “just don’t enforce the existing rules. And we see it at all levels.
Politically, Warford supports renaming the board so it makes sense to voters, creating a natural gas market monitor to guard against price gouging, increasing bloat gas infrastructure and the reduction of greenhouse gases and other emissions from Texas fossil fuel operations.
“The things I’m talking about are keeping the lights on, cutting utility prices, creating jobs in the energy sector, protecting our clean air, making sure people have clean air and water,” he says. “And those things just aren’t political.”
His opponent might disagree.
“The truth is, the biggest scam in our nation’s history is this catastrophizing of green environmentalist extremism,” Christian said in a recent interview on a YouTube show called The raw truth. “I see my fellow politicians saying, ‘We are for all the energy above!’ Well, I don’t agree with that. I disagree with the fact that we are for all. We are for good things!”
For Wayne Christian, “good stuff” means fossil fuels.
Against the findings of researchers and complaints from landowners, Christian says the commission is doing a good job when it comes to things like flaring gas and plugging abandoned oil wells. Against the independent and government findings, he says commission regulators and the industry didn’t mess up during the outage.
And he thinks climate change isn’t real.
“Climate catastrophists have made a religion of what they do,” he said in the same YouTube interview. (Christian did not respond to KUT’s interview request.)
Religion is something he often brings up on the stump.
During his campaign years, Christian often urged voters to support “the only Christian on the ballot.” He says the slogan is a way to get his name out there, which is especially helpful when running for an obscure political office that most people don’t know much about.
But the slogan struck many others as insensitive or anti-Semitic, criticism that surfaced in 2014 when Christian faced a primary challenger who was Jewish. Recently, Christian’s campaign said it would finally drop the slogan after it was called a “bigot” by Warford, who is Jewish.
Christian’s financial ties to the industry have also been criticized. When he accepted a $100,000 campaign donation from a company with cases before the Railroad Commission, his main GOP opponent, Sara Stogner, accused him of “taking bribes ”.
The incident (in which Christian denied any wrongdoing) was emblematic of a state agency whose elected commissioners are heavily funded by the industry they regulate, a practice recently documented in a series of reports by the group of Commission Shift oversight.
“There is no office more corrupt than the Texas Railroad Commission,” says Warford.
But for Christian, who argues that what’s good for the oil industry is good for Texas, being comfortable with the industry isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
David Prindle, a UT Austin political science professor who has written a book on the Railroad Commission, says it’s a position commissioners have held essentially since the beginning of the oil industry in Texas.
“They still see themselves as the managers of the Texas economy,” he says. “In order to manage the Texas economy, they want to support and nurture a healthy oil industry.”
So, is the oil industry healthy?
“I don’t think Wayne Christian and the current railroad commissioners support the industry as a whole,” Warford says. “I think they’re bidding on a very small number of oil and gas executives. The commission and how it does or does not enforce the rules distorts the market. This actually undermines the market.
It’s what voters think of this statement, as much as the blackout and global warming issues, that could decide the race for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission.
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