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Race to be Texas' top oil and gas regulator appears headed to a runoff in wild GOP primary

Incumbent Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, seen here at the Texas Republican Convention in 2018, will face XX in the general election in November.
Julia Reihs
Incumbent Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, seen here at the Texas Republican Convention in 2018, will face XX in the general election in November.

A GOP primary that saw one candidate die in a campaign-related car accident, a second pose nearly nude on top of a pump jack and a third get accused of corruption has taken yet another unexpected turn. Incumbent Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian (the one accused of corruption) appears to have failed to fend off a runoff election.

While the race has not been called, his closest competitor is Sarah Stogner (she of the pump jack pose).

Despite its name, the Railroad Commission oversees oil and gas extraction, as well as pipelines, in the state. That role has led some to call it one of the most important regulatory agencies in the world, especially when it comes to energy policy and climate change. If Texas were its own country, it would be among the top five global oil producers.

The agency has also gained renewed attention among Texans since last year's statewide blackout, a crisis that was caused, in part, by regulators' lack of oversight of the natural gas supply chain and the industry's failure to winterize.

Christian has sat on the three-member Railroad Commission for six years and served as chair since last year. Before being elected to the commission, he was a state representative from 1997 to 2013.

Christian’s term has been characterized by his vocal support for the fossil fuel industry and the commission’s actions during and after the blackout. He is also known for railing against policies and politicians he views as hostile to fossil fuels and denying that climate change is caused by humans.

His campaign website describes him as a “national leader” fighting against efforts "like the Green New Deal, CLEAN Future Act, and the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Christian’s friendliness with the oil industry is par for the course among current-day Railroad commissioners who often see their roles not as adversarial regulators but as defenders of one of Texas' most economically important industries.

But that close relationship also prompts plenty of criticism.

Recently, the watchdog group Commission Shift published a series of reportsoutlining the depth of Railroad commissioners' financial interests in the very industries they regulate and their practice of taking campaign contributions from companies they oversee.

Christian himself was criticized during his campaign for taking a $100,000 contribution from a company after supporting it on the commission.

Stogner made that growing sense that the Railroad Commission in general, and Christian in particular, were captured by industry a centerpiece of her campaign to unseat him.

“I am an experienced oil and gas attorney, and my opponent is a career politician who was caught taking bribes,” she wrote in a tweet pinned to her Twitter profile.

Stronger lives and practices law in the Permian Basin, Texas’ most productive oil patch. Among other things, her campaign has highlighted local environmental problems caused by abandoned oil wells and their link to groundwater contamination.

The Railroad Commission is responsible for plugging abandoned wells, but it has, for decades, been unable to keep up with the backlog.

But it is Stogner’s unorthodox social media presence that earned a late burst of attention ahead of early voting when she posed semi-nude on top of a pump jack as part of a campaign ad.

“My goal is to draw attention to the issues,” she wrote in response to criticism for the stunt. “Use social media or it will use you.”

Currently in third place and still in possible contention for a Republican runoff is Houston-area oil and gas consultant Tom Slocum Jr. Among other things, Slocum has run on finishing the border wall project begun under President Donald Trump and using bitcoin to bolster the Texas energy system.

On his website, he criticizes current Railroad commissioners for approving a plan passed by state lawmakers last year to pass $3.4 billion in blackout-related debt onto Texas consumers. During the blackout, as gas became scarce, its price skyrocketed. State lawmakers tasked the Railroad Commission with “securitizing” the debtassociated with those high prices. The process allows gas distribution companies to pay off their suppliers by raising consumers' bills over time rather than paying in one lump sum.

Slocum says on his website that Texas “absolutely cannot allow the Railroad Commission to pay another $3.4B bailout onto Texas taxpayers!”

Currently in fourth place is Marvin "Sarge" Summers. Summers was a Lubbock-based Army veteran with a career in the oil and gas industry. He died last month after his car rear-ended a tanker truck while he was driving to a campaign appearance.

The fact that he earned more than 180,000 votes in the primary could complicate an already-close and crowded election.

In contrast to the eventful Republican race, there was only one Democrat running for Railroad commissioner on the primary ballot. Luke Warford moves unopposed to the general election.

Warford was the chief strategy officer of the Texas Democratic Party. Before that, he worked with the international business consulting firm the Albright Stonebridge Group and for the Hillary for America campaign.

He has used his position as the sole Democratic candidate to focus his criticism on current Railroad commissioners, especially in regard to their connection to the statewide blackout in February 2021. It was an event, he says on his website, that “could have been prevented if the Texas Railroad Commission had done their jobs."

Warford has also dinged Christian for his climate change denial, callingthe race for Railroad commissioner “the most important climate election in the country.”

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.