Race for Railroad Commissioner Revives Overhaul Talk

Steve Brown (l.) and Ryan Sitton, Democratic and Republican nominees for Railroad Commissioner.
Steve Brown (l.) and Ryan Sitton, Democratic and Republican nominees for Railroad Commissioner.

The race for Texas railroad commissioner has revived — at least in the short term — debate around a series of thwarted legislative proposals to overhaul the state's curiously named oil and gas agency.

Calling the Railroad Commission too heavily influenced by the industry it regulates, Steve Brown, a Democrat, last week unveiled a slate of proposals aimed at reworking its image — measures first proposed by a panel of state lawmakers in 2013. The proposals include changing the commission’s name, shortening the period in which commissioners can fundraise, barring commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expanding its recusal policy and requiring commissioners to resign before running for another office.

“The agency is broken itself, and so, you know, because of that, there are so many people in the community — out in the state of Texas — who just don’t trust the process,” Brown, the former chairman of the Fort Bend Democrats, said in an interview.

The move revealed stark differences between the campaign priorities of Brown and Ryan Sitton, his Republican opponent and the clear front-runner in the race, as they vie for an office that toes a line between industry champion and watchdog.

Sitton’s campaign criticized Brown’s announcement but did not directly weigh in on the bulk of the proposals, saying Sitton's attention is focused on other issues. “We’re focused on making sure that Ryan is communicating his message, not in responding to ideas from his opponent,” said Jared Craighead, a spokesman for Sitton. Sitton is an oil and gas engineer who touts his industry expertise in his campaign credentials.

The race for railroad commissioner comes as the agency oversees an unprecedented­ drilling boom that has poured billions of dollars into the state treasury. But the rapid development has also strained infrastructure and stirred health and environmental concerns — including in parts of North Texas, where towns atop the gas-rich Barnett Shale have pressed the state for more help in addressing the effects of the boom.

Brown has raised just a fraction of the money that Sitton has. A Democrat has not been elected to the Railroad Commission in two decades. 

Brown’s proposals are the word-for-word recommendations of the 2012-13 Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the legislative body that periodically reviews how state agencies operate. Lawmakers last session debated but failed to pass several pieces of legislation incorporating the recommendations. The Railroad Commission opposed the overhaul, arguing that commissioners should not be subject to stricter fundraising standards than other statewide officials and that the agency’s current ethics policies were plenty robust. 

Brown called it a “vast mistake that the Legislature has been unable to pass these reforms.”

But Craighead panned Brown’s proposal as unoriginal. “I think to cut and paste the Sunset review commission’s work shows a lack of thought, and certainly, those are not the types of things that Ryan is talking about,” he said. He added that Sitton considers ethics and transparency issues important.

Sitton has pledged to improve efficiency at the agency through new technology, allow the free market to bolster oil and gas production and push back against the federal government. On the campaign trail, he has outlined his industry experience. Sitton’s engineering firm, PinnacleAIS, consults with some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, and he says that experience has given him the expertise to understand the deeply technical issues before the Railroad Commission.

Craighead said the campaign would unveil specific proposals in the coming months. 

It is unclear where Sitton stands on the specific Sunset recommendations. Craighead would only share the Republican’s thoughts on one of them — the call to rename the agency the Texas Energy Resources Commission. Brown says the change is needed to clear up confusion about the agency’s duties (it no longer regulates railroads). Sitton has said that he would back a name change — but only if lawmakers could avoid potential complications around renaming an agency listed in the state Constitution.

Craighead said Sitton had addressed other issues highlighted by the Sunset Commission, but he did not give specific examples. 

“These are things he’s talked about before, but we’re not going to respond to things his opponent puts out, especially when it’s not his opponent’s ideas,” Craighead said. “These are issues that a career politician with no industry experience or energy expertise talks about.”

Brown said he understands the huge importance of the oil and gas industry in the Texas economy, but he wants the commission to focus more on responding to the concerns of those who face the industry’s less desirable impacts.

“What’s needed right now with the explosion of energy production in our state is balance,” he said.

Sitton raised more than $289,000 during the most recent reporting period, which covers Feb. 23 through June 30. That included about $152,000 in donations from oil and gas industry companies, executives and political action committees, according to state filings.

Brown reported raising nearly $28,000 during the same period — none of it from the oil and gas industry.

Also running for the seat is Mark Miller, a Libertarian who raised about $750 during the last reporting period. Miller, who said he is trying to spur more discussion about surface property rights, called the Sunset recommendations “right on.” 

“Right now so many people don’t trust the Railroad Commission,” he said.