The Railroad Commission of Texas might be one of the most powerful government agencies you’ve never heard of. That’s because, despite the name, the commission regulates the Texas oil and gas industry.
In this year’s primary runoff election, two Democrats are vying for a chance to run for a seat on the commission. Both candidates point to their resumes as a reason for your vote.
Chrysta Castañeda runs a Dallas-based law firm that specializes in energy litigation. (Castañeda helped win T. Boone Pickens over $145 million in 2016.) It’s that legal background, as well as her time working as an engineer, which she thinks makes her uniquely qualified for the job.
“Those 30 years of experience … have let me know that we can do much better at the Texas Railroad Commission,” she said.
Flaring is when oil companies set fire to methane coming from their operations to burn off gas they can’t or won’t sell. It’s preferable to letting gas leak out, but bad for the environment and a waste of resources. And yet, the Railroad Commission grants companies exemptions to do it all the time.
“Understand that flaring is illegal and has been illegal for over 100 years because it wastes our natural resources,” she said. Castañeda said she would review each request to flare individually.
When it comes to this year’s oil bust, Castañeda said she wants to use the agency’s power to limit oil production to stabilize prices. It’s an approach current commissioners considered, but rejected, earlier this year.
She said she also favors increasing bonds on oil companies or getting federal stimulus money to plug abandoned oil wells. Abandoned wells are becoming a growing problem, as oilfield bankruptcies cause companies to walk away from their responsibilities.
“I understand the complexities of the position that I am running for,” Castañeda said.
When asked why voters should choose her, she said, “the solutions aren’t easy. The solutions vary by location, by operator, by regulatory framework, by a whole host of factors that make this particular position unlike any other position in state government.”
While Castañeda points to her time working in the industry, her opponent points to his time in politics.
“One of the questions that keeps on coming up is: Who’s got the technical experience?” Roberto Alonzo said in a recent KUT interview. “We’re not going to be the scientists doing the research. We’re going to do the policy. We’re gonna do the governing.”
Alonzo was a state representative from District 104 in Dallas County for over 25 years, before losing to a primary challenger last year. He says his experience working across the aisle would help him navigate the three-member Railroad Commission, which has been dominated by Republican politicians for decades.
“I want to come in and give Democrats’ points of view,” he says. “Of course, there’s going to be two Republicans and what’s going to have to happen, if we can, we come to a working experience.”
When it comes to policy, Alonzo wants to change the way the commission is funded. Right now, it gets most its money from industry production taxes and permitting fees. He thinks that creates a conflict, so he wants it funded directly from the state budget.
“One of the things you’ll hear, and we will all hear, [is that] there’s no money. ‘There’s no money!’” he said. “There’s always money. It’s just who gets the money.”
He also advocates reforms to limit industry donations to Railroad Commission candidates.