The 2020 race for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission is beginning to seriously take shape as prominent Dallas attorney Chrysta Castañeda enters the Democratic primary to challenge Republican incumbent Ryan Sitton.
“The Railroad Commission’s number one job is to protect our natural resources and prevent the waste of oil and gas, but in its current configuration, it has abandoned that duty," Castañeda said in a statement Wednesday afternoon announcing her candidacy.
The Railroad Commission is usually one of the lower-profile statewide races on the ballot, but in election cycles like 2020, the candidates play an important role for their parties because they top the non-federal statewide ticket. The contest for Sitton's seat, one of three on the commission, will appear on the ballot after the races for president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
Castañeda has decades of oil and gas experience, first as a software engineer for companies and then as a lawyer for operators and others in the industry. In 2016, she won a $146 million verdict for the late Dallas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens in a high-profile drilling rights dispute.
Castañeda is centering her campaign on the issue of flaring, or the burning of natural gas that companies do not move to market. The practice, which emits harmful pollutants into the air, has become increasingly rampant; oil and gas producers say it's because of a shortage of pipelines, while environmentalists say it's due to economics because natural gas is far cheaper than oil. They also blame the Railroad Commission, which has approved a historic number of flaring permits and extensions to flaring permits.
In her announcement video, Castañeda said the state "might as well be burning cash" and charged Sitton with refusing to enforce laws to curtail the waste.
"Texans deserve someone who will enforce the law and work for all of us," she said. "Let's stop wasting energy."
Sitton responded earlier this month after Castañeda took her first formal step toward challenging him, filing the necessary paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission.
"Regardless of who runs, my message is the same," Sitton tweeted. "The opportunities in energy in Texas are greater than they’ve ever been and EVERY Texan benefits from the responsible production of energy in our state! I’m proud to put my expertise to work for all Texans every single day."
Castañeda is the second Democrat to declare against Sitton. Kelly Stone, a former lecturer at Texas State University, announced her campaign in late August, saying she wants to bring a "more democratic approach to representing people and the planet rather than the desires of Big Oil."
A former Democratic candidate for the Railroad Commission, Cody Garrett, announced in early September that he was exploring a second run in 2020. Garrett lost the 2016 Democratic primary runoff for an open seat on the commission that ultimately went to former state Rep. Wayne Christian, a Republican.
While Texas Democrats are bullish on their chances up and down the 2020 ballot, they have not elected someone to statewide office in over two decades. And while some statewide races tightened in 2018, the railroad commissioner who was up for reelection, Christi Craddick, won by 9 percentage points.
Kiah Collier contributed reporting.
Disclosure: T. Boone Pickens was a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.