In a typical election year, the race for a seat on the Railroad Commission of Texas doesn’t get a lot of attention. Even less so a primary runoff to decide on a party’s nominee for that race.
This is not a typical year.
The Republican primary contest between incumbent Wayne Christian and challenger Sarah Stogner has been characterized by twists and turns, accusations of corruption and some light nudity. Along the way it has exposed longstanding divisions within the party and in the Texas oil patch over exactly how much influence the oil and gas industry should have in state government.
Confused reader: Wait. Did you say oil and gas industry? I thought we were talking about railroads!
Wise and patient (and handsome) public radio reporter: No no no. In Texas, the “Railroad Commission” doesn’t regulate railroads; it regulates the oil and gas industry. How that happened is a tale for another day. Our story begins with a feral hog-hunt on a West Texas ranch …
It was during that fateful hunt that Sarah Stogner, a lawyer based in the Permian Basin, says the seed of her candidacy was planted. Her hunting partner, the ranch’s owner, was a friend named Ashley Watt. Between reloads they talked about the abandoned oil wells on Watt’s land that she wanted plugged. Stogner, who does oilfield litigation, warned Watt about the environmental damage those wells cause and began working to help her.
What happened next, according to Stogner and Watt, was a railroading of a different kind. Rather than finding support at the commission, they say, the agency teamed up with oil giant Chevron to deny responsibility over plugging the wells and fixing the damage.
It was after that experience that Stogner says she understood the scope of the problem facing the Texas oil patch. Thousands of abandoned wells dot the Permian Basin, threatening water supplies, air quality and even the future of the earth’s atmosphere.
The Railroad Commission, she says, is part of the problem.
“They’re essentially a captive agency of the industry.” she said. “If we were going to get rid of Wayne [Christian] and have any meaningful change at the Railroad Commission, I was going to have to do it myself.”
In a crowded early primary she declined campaign contributions to highlight the role of industry money in commission races. She leaned hard on social media, putting eyebrow-raising posts on TikTok and Twitter, culminating in a brief video of her riding a pump jack in pasties, a cowboy hat and little else.
“I knew if I hadn’t done that we weren’t going to a runoff,” she said. “No one was getting enough traction, because they didn’t have enough money. And I was like, ‘We don’t need money. We have other assets.'”
Now she says what started as something of a statement candidacy has become a serious challenge. She’s hoping for the backing of Republican voters who support the oil industry, but feel its influence over government and enforcement has gone too far. That’s not an uncommon feeling in the Texas oil patch, where people are familiar with the pollution, property rights battles and literal earthquakes that come with oil and gas production.
“For lack of a better analogy it’s kind of like the mafia,” Stogner says. “’We’ve got a family and we need to handle it internally.’ And I’ve tried to handle it internally for years unofficially, and it wasn’t getting the results.“
When Wayne Christian was named chairman of the Railroad Commission by his two fellow commissioners last September, he called serving on the three-member board “an honor of [his] lifetime.”
The chairman’s title was his latest in a long life of politics. (A little trivia: Before he entered politics, Christian performed in the Grammy-nominated Gospel band The Mercy River Boys.)
Elected from Center, Texas, to the state House of Representatives in 1997, Christian served around 16 years. He never chaired any committees, but worked in groups like the Texas Tea Party Caucus and the Texas Conservative Coalition, part of a national movement to push the party rightward.
That impulse continues. While Stogner has been running against Christian, Christian often seems to be running against a different opponent: Joe Biden and the Democrats in Washington.
“Fighting them, I think is probably my preeminent job,” he said in an interview with San Angelo Live. “I need to defend Texas oil and gas.”
As a commissioner, he decries federal regulation, fights the expansion of renewable energy and opposes efforts to combat climate change, calling it “green environmental extremism catastrophism” in a recent interview.
These are positions common among Texas Republican politicians. But defending the industry has lately come with greater political risk, and not just over handling of abandoned oil wells. Christian has repeatedly argued that the failure along the natural gas supply line did not contribute to the devastating blackout of February 2021, something even many of his fellow Republicans disagree with.
His financial ties to industry have also come under fire. When he accepted a $100,000 campaign donation from a company with business before the Railroad Commission, Stogner accused him of “taking bribes.”
“Follow the money,” she said. “If you follow who somebody is sleeping with or who they’re getting money from, those are the things that motivate us as humans.”
But Stogner’s campaign now has some money of its own.
After months of refusing contributions, she recently accepted over $1.5 million from Watt, that same West Texas ranch owner whose abandoned oil wells first got Stogner interested in entering politics. She says she took the money because she believes the race is tightening. Viral videos, she says, can only get you so far.