Energy or Railroad: Are the Politics Different?

What’s in a name?

Every two years, political reporters here haul out the story explaining that the Texas Railroad Commission has little to do with trains and everything to do with the oil and gas business. But that’s a little-known thing in the greater community, where work and kids’ soccer and grocery bills are of more immediate concern. It’s not like the label tells you what’s in the box. And, besides, trains are kind of cool.

But lawmakers are considering a list of changes at the agency, including the name — to the Oil & Gas Commission or to the Texas Energy Commission. Another proposal would cut the number of elected commissioners from three to one, focusing all of the attention on one election every four years. That would raise the political profile of the office and would give voters a hint at what they’re deciding.

Juxtapose that with this week’s legislative hearings over the availability of electricity, or lack of, during a recent cold snap. The state Senate hauled in energy regulators and utility executives to find out why a weeklong freeze knocked 82 power plants out of commission. The lawmakers are worked up, probably because the people who called them during the blackouts were worked up. Those are voters. Suppose the public’s attention were focused on energy matters when an energy commissioner was on the ballot.

“It makes it higher profile,” said Corbin Casteel, who has worked on campaigns for Michael Williams and David Porter, both Republicans and two of the state’s three railroad commissioners. “Anytime you elevate the perception of the office, it changes how people react to it.”

Porter, an oil patch accountant who moved from Midland to Giddings in Central Texas and then decided, after years of working on the finances of oil and gas people, to run for the Railroad Commission last year, sailed into office in a relatively inexpensive campaign that had as much to do with his non-Hispanic name and his party affiliation as anything else. He beat Commissioner Victor Carrillo in the Republican primary — a loss the incumbent attributed to bias in the electorate. And he defeated Jeff Weems, whose chief flaw as a candidate was the fact that he is a Democrat in a state where that’s not an aphrodisiac.

Railroad commissioners aren’t directly in the line of fire on the cold snap snafu; they regulate the gas industry, and most of the legislative wrath has been directed at power generators. But the word “energy” is in the air.

Suppose an election were coming up with that word in the title of the agency at a time when that word was in headlines for some other reason. A bad reason. Some people in Tarrant and Denton counties are remarkably upset about the fracking natural gas producers who’ve invaded their communities in the last few years. It makes you wonder: How would they vote if the office were called the Texas Oil & Gas Commission? Or the Texas Energy Commission?

Bryan Eppstein, another Republican consultant, thinks it will remain an “obtuse” office that people don’t really understand. “If you’re mad about eminent domain, you don’t get mad at the land commissioner,” he said.

But Weems, who campaigned for renaming the agency, thinks it would change the politics. For one thing, he said, “four of five people I talked to didn’t know what it did — or were sure that it regulates railroads.” Naming it for what it does — he prefers the energy label to oil and gas — would make it clear. He’s also for combining it with the state’s environmental and public utility regulators, putting voters in a spot “where their anger and angst could be properly directed.”

The test could come soon. Two commissioners are leaving to run for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat in 2012. Williams is leaving in April, and Gov. Rick Perry will appoint a successor who’ll serve until the 2012 elections.

Elizabeth Ames Jones is also running for the seat. Jones is up for re-election in 2012, too, so the seat will be on the ballot whatever she chooses to do. And legislators are talking about cutting the number of commissioners to one, a reconstitution that would displace everyone and put that one seat on the ballot in 2012, potentially under the shingle that describes what the agency actually does.

Don’t be surprised if the candidates are all glued to the Weather Channel, looking for cold fronts.

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