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Luke Warford has spent the last few months trying to educate voters about what the Texas Railroad Commission actually does, going on a train tour across Texas to draw attention to the commission’s “misname” while churning out TikTok videos skewering the agency and his opponent.
The 33-year-old former Texas Democratic Party staffer is challenging Republican incumbent agency Chair Wayne Christian, who has served on the three-member commission since 2016. Warford is focusing his campaign on last year’s power grid failure — when a winter storm knocked out lights and heat for millions of Texans for days and left hundreds of people dead — by trying to connect the catastrophe to the Railroad Commission and Christian’s leadership.
“A huge amount of people are in the dark about what happened. And I’m very much using this campaign to try to shine a light on that,” he said.
Warford said the power grid’s failure exposed the commission’s failure to ensure that natural gas companies weatherize their facilities to prepare them for extreme weather. He said that’s what makes this election “the most important climate race in the country.”
Meanwhile, he’s trying to explain the agency’s misleading name to voters. The Texas Railroad Commission was formed in the 1890s largely to regulate the state’s railroads. Today, the agency has nothing to do with railroads — it mainly regulates the oil and gas industry, as well as natural gas utilities; issues oil and gas drilling permits; and inspects wells, among other duties. It’s also tasked with ensuring that companies follow state and federal rules on safety and pollution.
Like any Democrat running for statewide office, Warford comes in as an underdog: All three railroad commissioners are Republicans; a Democrat hasn’t won any statewide office since the 1990s.
Warford, who has worked as a consultant for energy companies, is trying to use that to his advantage, arguing that “having a Democrat internally as a watchdog to what the other two [commissioners] are doing would fundamentally totally change the dynamic of the entire agency.”
Jason Modglin, president of Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said Warford’s biggest barrier to gaining support from the oil and gas industry is his party affiliation because nationally, Democrats have been “so anti oil and gas.”
Modglin said his group has endorsed Christian, who “has really been a great leader for us, advocating for smaller businesses, for trying to find ways for regulatory compliance to be workable for all sizes of businesses.”
Power grid failure becomes campaign issue
Warford, who has a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, has taken his campaign to the social media app TikTok, where one of his latest videos showed him wrapping hundreds of Texans’ electrical bills in blue gift paper and dropping it off at Christian’s home on his birthday.
Warford said if he’s elected, he will launch an investigation of possible price gouging during the winter storm, establish clear weatherization rules for natural gas facilities with stricter penalties and make the Railroad Commission more transparent.
During the February 2021 winter storm, natural gas infrastructure froze, choking off much of the fuel supply to gas-fired power plants. As the demand for electricity skyrocketed during the bitter cold, wholesale market prices for electricity rose to $9 per kilowatt-hour, compared with the average 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Warford said the agency’s failure to ensure that natural gas facilities were prepared for severe cold weather led to the price spikes. He has questioned why the agency failed to act for a decade after a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. found that Texas needed to better prepare its infrastructure for cold weather after a 2011 winter storm froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state.
Modglin said natural gas producers aren’t solely to blame.
“We [TAEP] fundamentally disagree that the industry’s role during that storm could have overcome the lack of preparation by generators to meet the electricity demand during that week,” Modglin said.
As mandated by lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session, the Railroad Commission recently revised its weatherization rules to require that natural gas companies better prepare their equipment for extreme weather, and set fines between $5,000 and $1 million for failure to comply.
Warford said that punishment is not enough.
“They spent 10 years ignoring expert warnings, knowing that a grid failure like this was a risk and doing absolutely nothing,” he said.
Modglin said “substantial improvements” have been made since Winter Storm Uri to the supply chain, including weatherizing generators and pipelines and purchasing natural gas storage.
Christian said the state’s “current facilities are now prepared for the next weather emergency. But we must make sure there are enough of them to meet the energy demands of our growing state.”
Christian said the long-term solution to meeting the state’s energy needs must include building “more reliable and affordable” natural gas-fired power plants.
Warford hopes climate change stance wins votes
Warford said he hasn’t gotten much backing from the oil and gas industry, whose political contributions dominate Railroad Commission races. The nonprofit watchdog group Commission Shift published a series of reports last year that show 67% of the $15 million in campaign contributions the current commissioners — Christian, Christi Craddick, and Jim Wright — and former Commissioner Ryan Sitton raised from 2015-20 came from oil and gas companies.
Warford has raised just under $805,000 in contributions in the past year while Christian has raised $1.3 million since July 2021. Warford said most of his contributions have come from people across the state who are mad about the grid failure and the commission’s impact on the environment.
Warford also received an endorsement from Sarah Stogner, a Republican candidate who lost to Christian in a runoff earlier this year.
Stogner said Warford isn’t a typical Democrat, calling him “pragmatic and pro-business.” She added that Texas’ energy industry is “too important to let corrupt career politicians stay in office, and I’m taking a stand against it.”
Virginia Palacios, the executive director of Commission Shift — which formed shortly after last year’s winter storm to promote more accountability by the Railroad Commission — said the fact that the commissioners’ campaigns are largely funded by the industry they regulate raises a huge concern.
“We are not going to get anywhere with our environmental goals if we are up against a commission that has no reason to listen to us,” she said.
Warford said he’s banking on his stance on climate change to help win enough votes to defeat Christian.
Warford said the Railroad Commission “doesn’t do its job” to help reduce the amount of methane and other greenhouse gases emitted by the industries it regulates. He thinks the agency should be using new technology like infrared cameras to identify and respond to methane leaks more quickly.
Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency proposed tighter controls last year that would limit methane emissions generated during the extraction of oil and gas.
“Whether that’s enforcing the existing rules on flaring and venting, or identifying and preventing methane leaks or capping orphan wells, [the commissioners] simply are not addressing or acknowledging or doing anything about the problem,” Warford said.
Christian said Warford is advocating for regulations that would “put our local oil and gas companies out of business and kill jobs” and Warford would be “a rubber stamp” for President Joe Biden’s climate change plan, which promises to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030.
Warford said he is calling for the agency to answer to the people rather than to corporations.
“What Texas producers need is a regulator that can credibly and consistently enforce the rules,” Warford said. “When we talk about keeping the lights on, barring utility prices, and clean air and clean water, those are not partisan issues.”
Disclosure: The Texas Alliance of Energy Producers has been 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.