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As Railroad Commission's Influence Grows, Will Voters Take Interest?

The Railroad Commission, the state's oil and gas regulator, plays a major role in Texas' energy production, which has only grown since the state's drilling boom. But how much do voters care about the commission candidates?

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Ray Keller has a message for any confused Texas voters: He has no plans to regulate locomotives. The former state representative is, however, trying to become the state’s next railroad commissioner.

Some Texans are well aware that the state’s oldest — if misnamed — regulatory agency long ago shifted its attention from railways to oil and gas drillers, natural gas utilities and pipeline safety. But that insight isn’t universal, even in a state that prides itself for its large contribution to the country’s domestic energy production.  

Confusion over the commission's name will be just one of several challenges, Keller and others say, for candidates trying to connect with voters in a crowded race to replace outgoing Commissioner Barry Smitherman, who is running for Texas attorney general. Observers describe a wide chasm between the agency’s large influence on state and national policy and the relatively little attention voters pay to its politics.

“Nobody even knows who they are,” Allen Gilmer, CEO of Drillinginfo, an oil and gas research firm, said of the field of candidates. The comment echoed the results of Texas Weekly's mid-August nonscientific survey of government and political insiders, who were asked to share their opinions about which candidate would win. Given a choice between Keller, state Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas; Becky Berger, a geologist and member of the State Republican Executive Committee; and Malachi Boyuls, an oil and gas investor and former regulatory attorney, nearly 44 percent of those insiders said they didn't have a preference.  

Since then, even more candidates have entered the race. The field also now includes former state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center; Ryan Sitton, an oil and gas engineer who lost a Texas House bid in 2012; and attorney Joe Pool Jr., son of the late U.S. Rep. Joe R. Pool, who served from 1963 to 1968. 

Voter apathy is nothing new for a race that is often overshadowed by contests higher up on the ballot, and this year there are several of them, including Smitherman's primary election and races for lieutenant governor and comptroller.

“Generally, the farther down the ballot you get, the less information you have," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

The current Railroad Commission election comes as the economic and environmental impacts of oil and gas production are on the rise in Texas. Technological advances, such as the use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, have triggered an oil and gas bonanza at levels Texas hasn’t seen in 30 years. The state is producing more than twice the oil it did three years ago, and more than one-third of all U.S. production, according to federal data

That has lent influence to the little-known body that permits, inspects and enforces the rules it writes for the industry. Those rules, in turn, may influence regulations in other states.

“This is probably the most important agency in the state,” said Christi Craddick, who joined the three-member commission in 2012. “We’re kind of the industry standard.”  

Gushing about the new jobs and cash accompanying the drilling surge, current commissioners and candidates say the agency should focus on continuing that trend with limited government inteference. 

“We need to do everything we can so that the industry continues to thrive,” Boyuls said. With the country on the verge of becoming a net energy exporter, he said, “the need for energy leadership is more important now than it’s been in a long time.” 

The race also comes at a peculiar time for the commission, which narrowly avoided complete reorganization last session. Lawmakers — some of whom were skeptical of its performance and relevance  ultimately left it as is for four more years during the "sunset" process, which periodically evaluates the operations of state agencies. The agency survived without changes, and the Legislature gave it permission to use millions of dollars in fees to upgrade decades-old computer and software systems that have strained its capabilities. 

The candidates acknowledge that voters aren't easily excited about the Railroad Commission race. But some said they expect voters to pay attention once they understand the commission's job. “It is hard to engage people until you explain that it affects their pocketbook,” Keller said.

Todd Olsen, a spokesman for Sitton, said he hopes the surge in drilling will shine a brighter-than-normal spotlight on the race. 

“Because it is a national boom, it really has brought some attention to Texas,“ he said. “It’s our state’s job to try to figure out whether we’re doing this right.” 

Along with rapid growth, the fossil fuels bonanza in Texas has also created challenges for preventing air and water pollution and maintaining the state’s roads. Those who have long called for more scrutiny of the industry are watching the commission as it weighs regulations for disposal wells and natural gas flares, making decisions that could echo across the nation. 

“Generally speaking, the Railroad Commission is the most influential oil and gas commission in the country,” said Scott Anderson, an expert in energy policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Most of the time, when the agency speaks, other agencies tend to listen.”

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