Vol 29, Issue 27 Print Issue

Railroad Commission Runoffs: Does It Matter Who Wins?

The four remaining Republican candidates for the Texas Railroad Commission are preparing for their last three weeks before the run-offs on July 29, with salvos and counter-salvos about resume gaps, in the case of the Warren Chisum-Christi Craddick race, and debates about green energy in the Barry Smitherman-Greg Parker matchup. Meanwhile, confusion is rife among voters, who are dealing with unusual twin runoffs following an also-unusual redistricting saga and a delayed primary. And all of this for an agency whose functions don’t match its name.

But how much does it actually matter who wins? The candidates sound remarkably similar on the big-ticket topics. All loathe the Environmental Protection Agency, applaud the Texas drilling boom and want to overhaul the commission’s often-impenetrable website. And indeed, most of the commission’s decisions are unanimous, according to Elizabeth Ames Jones, who left the commission in February.

She and others insist that this does not mean that the commissioners are interchangeable in the way they will vote. Whereas cases involving geology and engineering disputes are often more straightforward, some of the most important and precedent-setting decisions, involving for example new technology, get decided by 2-1 votes, she said. The Sunset Commission last year, for example, elicited a difference of opinion: then-chairman Michael Williams wanted a single commissioner to preside over the agency, whereas Ames Jones and Commissioner David Porter favored the current three-commissioner set-up.

Personalities are also a key differentiator — especially important given the RRC’s reputation as a launching pad for higher office. “When you have three [type] A personalities in there, it can create friction between then,” said Alex Mills, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.  “And it has happened. It will probably happen again.” As examples, he cited Jim Nugent, a commissioner during the 1980s, who “had opinions about everything and didn’t mind expressing them.” Similarly, Barry Williamson and Carole Rylander (now Strayhorn) went head to head over intra-state natural gas pipeline regulations, he said.

Ames-Jones echoed this thought. “Typically you’re pretty strong-willed anyway to run for office, and you’ve got to have nerves of steel,” she said. “You get three people with nerves of steel who have been elected, and you’re probably going to have people who are not necessarily wanting to be going to movies on weekends… But that’s good. You really can’t anyway.” Due to the nature of the job — the restrictions on discussing cases in private — the commissioners don’t have much of a chance to get acquainted, Ames Jones said; they aren’t even afforded the deliberation opportunities that Supreme Court justices have. “There’s a little bit of small talk on the way to here or there, or downstairs on the way to a hearing room,” she said. “It doesn’t get much past the weather.”

Ideally, according to Ames Jones, voters should look for someone with a “judicial temperament” — as if, in fact, they are choosing a Supreme Court justice. The RRC is “called, lightly, the Supreme Court of oil and gas law.” After all the sound bites on the campaign trail, the commissioners must wrangle with non-partisan issues of science and geology, she said, and make sure that people coming before the commission have due process.

But getting back to the all-important question of who wins: Mills, who has been watching races for more than three decades, admitted he’s stumped when it comes to predicting voters’ choices. “You just look at the last election, when David Porter defeated Victor Carrillo — both had very similar philosophies about government, meaning they had a very pro-industry [stance],” he said. “…And Victor was very well-qualified, and he was the incumbent, and David beat him.”

His best guess? “It’s going to be close, I think,” he said. “Both races I think will be close.” And they may offer some further clarity, after the Carillo-Porter surprise.