WICHITA FALLS — One overriding theme unifies the Republican candidates for two Texas Railroad Commission slots: The Environmental Protection Agency has overreached and must be scaled back.
"Let me tell you, these people can ruin your life," state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said last week at a forum in Wichita Falls that was organized by the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. "If they ever require an EPA permit before you drill a well, your lease will expire."
Roland Sledge, a Houston lawyer who has specialized in oil and gas for 35 years, spoke repeatedly of the "relentless assault" by the EPA on the oil and gas industry.
Christi Craddick, another candidate, went up another level. "Let's get rid of [President] Obama if we do nothing else," said Craddick, a lawyer specializing in oil, gas and water and who is the daughter of state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. "This man hates the state. ... I want to make sure he gets on a solar-powered airplane and flies someplace else," like China.
The Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, is headed by three elected commissioners. One of this year’s two races is for a full six-year term to fill the position currently occupied by Commissioner Buddy Garcia. He was recently appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to fill the remainder of the term of Elizabeth Ames Jones, who is running for state Senate. Chisum, Craddick and Sledge are the Republicans seeking that spot along with Becky Berger, a geologist; Beryl Burgess, who worked in an industrial lab in Harlingen; and Joe Cotten, a Frisco native.
The winner of the May 29 Republican primary will face Dale Henry, a Democrat from Lampasas, but the commission has traditionally been dominated by Republicans.
In the second race, commission chairman Barry Smitherman, who was appointed last year to fill another vacancy created by Michael Williams’ departure, is running against Al Lee, Elizabeth Murray-Kolb and Greg Parker in the Republican primary. No Democrat is running for this position, which is an unexpired term ending in 2014.
The candidates have held numerous forums across the state, and undoubtedly will hold more — and voters are still making up their minds. "My problem with these people was, I couldn't decide which one I liked the best," said Terry Campbell, the president of the San Angelo Tea Party, which hosted a forum with multiple candidates this month.
Environmental advocates, however, are disappointed with the candidates.
"Because of the fracking boom, this is going to be a critical race," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, the Texas head of the environmental watchdog Public Citizen. "And it's unfortunate that the candidates are all talking about protecting the industry and forgetting that they have an equal and perhaps more important responsibility to regulate the industry and protect the citizens from the excesses of the industry." Smith said he was especially worried about emissions related to fracking and increased flaring of gas in the oilfields.
Parker is proud of authoring a book about global warming as a myth. "How many of you know global warming is a myth?" he asked the several dozen people in attendance at Wichita Falls. Most raised their hands. He criticizes Smitherman for having "led the charge for windmills" while at the Public Utility Commission, which oversaw a process ordered up the Legislature of building multi-billion dollar transmission lines to aid wind power. "I have nothing against wind and solar, but I have something against government subsidization of wind and solar," he said.
Smitherman, a fourth-generation Texan who has racked up endorsements recently from Attorney General Greg Abbott and The Dallas Morning News, has emphasized the importance of more drilling and energy independence. "We must prevent any and everything from standing in the way of increasing domestic production,” he told a state Senate committee in Odessa on Monday while testifying about the potential endangered species listing of the dunes sagebrush lizard that lives in the oilfields, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. He also called the resignation of EPA regional chief Al Armendariz a "good first step," adding that he urged a "full investigation of Mr. Armendariz's actions during his tenure as administrator to determine how many times he crossed the line and harmed our economy and our energy future by pursuing his extreme political agenda instead of science and fact."
Other issues in the race include the commission's website, which Parker described as "atrocious"; the commission's funding (Chisum said it was "grossly underfunded") and how to advance the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Railroad Commission’s name belies its responsibilities, as it has no oversight over railroads. And the candidates at the Wichita Falls forum said that they supported a name change to something more reflective of its purpose, along the lines of the “Texas Oil and Gas Commission.” An effort to change the name faltered in the last legislative session but is likely to come up again next spring.
Another issue is whether the Railroad Commission should continue to be overseen by three commissioners, or just one. "We need three commissioners. There's too many wells going on in this state. There's too much land to cover," said Berger, and other candidates appeared to be in agreement. It's an issue likely to come up in the next legislative session, as it did in the last one, as the Railroad Commission undergoes a comprehensive structural review, called "sunset."
Yet another issue is that the Railroad Commission has often served as a launching pad for higher office. The most recently departed commissioners, Jones and Williams, are examples. Berger suggested barring the candidates from running for another position until their term is up. "Don't be running for some grander office," she said. At the commission currently, she said, "We have two brand-new people who are not from the industry, and it's getting ridiculous."
Craddick said that resigning to run for another office was a good idea, but requiring it was going too far. "To mandate it, I think is a problem," she said.