The Houston Chronicle reported today that Texas Railroad Commission candidate Wayne Christian has collected nearly $300,000 in political contributions this year, with almost $190,000 from oil and gas interests. Among the top contributors are Exxon Mobil PAC, Jeffrey Hildebrand (CEO, Hilcorp Energy), and Pioneer Natural Resources.
His opponents in the race include Libertarian Mark Miller, Green Party candidate Martina Salinas and Democrat Grady Yarbrough.
Why are campaign contributions a big deal in an office such as Railroad Commissioner? The Chronicle notes that such donations raise questions about whether or not the commission protects the public interest or is protecting the interests of the energy industry.
According to the Texas Tribune, that’s exactly what Christian wants to do. He advocates light regulation of the industry and heavily opposes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a group he said were “lying like a bunch of Obama dogs” about the Texas environment at one candidate forum. In a forum in February, he stated, “We need to protect the industry.” He reiterated this message in an interview with KFYO, stating the commissioner’s seat is important because “we need to defend the oil and gas and coal industry in the state of Texas, and that’s why I’m running.”
Environmental groups don’t necessarily see it that way. Tom Smith, director of the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen, which monitors campaign finance and energy policy, had this to say:
“The Railroad Commission is pay-to-play politics at its worst in Texas, and the contributions don’t just pour in during the election season.”
However, current commissioner Ryan Sitton defended the practice, saying that despite $127,000 in oil and gas contributions when he was elected in 2014, he is committed to the job he was elected to do – regulate the industry that “drives the Texas economy” and regulates the oil and gas market in the contiguous 48 states.
Miller, who also defended his campaign contributions, said that the practice of accepting oil and gas donations only indicates that it’s oil and gas people who are interested in the Railroad Commission. It only seems to make sense.
Miller is a 65-year-old retired petroleum engineer professor. He spent the start of his career working in the California oil fields. He believes his background in the industry makes him a perfect candidate for a seat on the Commission. He favors less regulation, but says the commission should do more to protect the public. He’s endorsed by The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
Christian, too, claims he’s the best candidate for the job, as a financial advisor and former Republican legislator who served as a state representative from 1997 to 2013. The Tribune noted supporters of Christian have downplayed the importance of the technical expertise of the industry in a commissioner. Christian is endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Green Party candidate Martina Salinas says that she was inspired to run when a series of earthquakes hit North Texas in 2013. When a commissioner refused to answer tough questions, Salinas vowed to advocate for Texas instead of oil companies, reports The Shorthorn. As a civil engineer, she believes she’s qualified to help make tough decisions that will protect Texans.
“I’ve actually been out in the field with people with the shovels and everything around the equipment,” Salinas said. “Most of these commissioners use this position to go to higher office or get a job in the industry.”
She supports eliminating Texas’ dependence on fossil fuels, cutting out fracking, and increasing ground inspections. The Chronicle reports that Salinas raised less than $2,000 in campaign contributions.
Grady Yarbrough, like Salinas, is concerned about Texas earthquakes, too. While he mistakenly said that earthquakes were linked to fracking, a practice he would like to see banned in urban communities, he is running with an emphasis on public safety. He is the only candidate not to accept any campaign donations. He says, “If money is given and a favor is expected, then that, to me, is quid pro quo,” he said. “That is bribery, and that’s a crime.”