In Effort to Slow Climate Change, Texas Democrat Seeks Seat On Oil Regulation Board
Chrysta Castañeda wants to use the state Railroad Commission’s powers to stop energy companies from engaging in environmentally harmful practices like burning excess gas.
Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission doesn’t regulate railroads anymore. Instead, the three-person panel oversees the state’s gigantic oil and gas industries. Last year, Texas accounted for 41 percent of the nation’s crude oil production and 26 percent of its marketed natural gas production. It’s perhaps no surprise that in such an oil-rich state, the Railroad Commission has historically been staffed with industry allies such as Ryan Sitton, a former Occidental Petroleum and Marathon Energy employee who held a seat on the panel from 2015 until his primary defeat this year.
Now, the Texas Democratic Party is mounting a fight to give the public more control over one of the state’s most important but little known regulatory agencies. Chrysta Castañeda, a Dallas engineer and lawyer, is running for a seat on the commission. Her campaign could be well-timed: Despite Texas’s reputation as a Republican stronghold, 2020 might represent the best chance that the Democratic Party has had in years to take a seat on the state board that approves oil-drilling permits and regulates fracking. Even though no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, huge early voter turnout—in Travis County (Austin) and Harris County (Houston)—suggests that there could be a blue wave this fall.
“Long story short: If we enforce the law here, we can dramatically impact the carbon gases pumped into the atmosphere,” Castañeda told The Appeal.
Castañeda has run for office before. In 2012, after nine men and no women filed for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Texas’s 33rd Congressional District—which includes parts of Dallas and Fort Worth—she decided to enter the race (another woman later joined). After Castañeda lost that primary, she returned to her work as a trial lawyer. In April, she published a book about her time serving as oil magnate T. Boone Pickens’s personal lawyer in 2016. But she remained close to the state Democratic Party and told The Appeal that she’s dedicated to getting more women involved in Texas politics. Given Castañeda’s background working with energy industry titans like Pickens, the party approached her and asked her to run for the open Railroad Commission seat this year.
Castañeda was inspired to run in part by an oil and gas industry procedure called “flaring,” in which energy producers burn off unused natural gas and let it float away into the atmosphere. Technically, flaring is illegal in Texas—unless you have a permit from the Railroad Commission. As the U.S. began producing more natural gas over the last decade, the commission handed out thousands of flaring permits. In the 2008 fiscal year, the commission gave out just 107 permits, compared to 6,972 in fiscal year 2019. Energy producers use flaring to avoid spending extra money to store or transport excess gas. The thousands of flaring permits in Texas represent a profound environmental hazard because the practice releases methane, which warms the planet even faster than carbon dioxide.
“We light on fire enough natural gas to power the entire city of Houston continuously,” Castañeda said. “It’s harmful to our climate—and it causes human health problems like, asthma, premature births, and lung disease.” Castañeda also promises to push energy companies to plug abandoned wells, since many producers leave spent oil fields open, forcing taxpayers to clean up the mess.
Castañeda—who proudly states on her campaign’s website that she believes that humans cause climate change—faces Republican Jim Wright. Earlier this year, Wright defeated Ryan Sitton in the state’s Republican primary despite the fact that Wright has been accused in court of fraud and fined more than $180,000 by the Railroad Commission itself for allowing waste to pile up on oil fields he owns.
Wright said he entered the race after dealing with commission regulations that he has called “confusing.” He has defended flaring and said Castañeda’s positions could shut down the oil industry. Wright’s campaign website does not discuss carbon emissions or climate change—but does include a section on the need for “border security.”
“I firmly believe that we must secure our border to protect our families, our infrastructure and our oil and gas industry,” he writes. “I know firsthand the dangers of a weak border. In 2017, a vehicle of illegal immigrants ran a stop sign and crashed into my wife’s jeep before leaving her unable to move and almost dead. Today she is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, saved by the Grace of God and because a neighbor found her and helped save her life.”
In August, the New Republic called Castañeda’s race the “most important climate election” of 2020. There are concerns about Castañeda’s ties to oil and gas—her 2016 legal fight on Pickens’s behalf won the tycoon $146 million after he said he’d been cut out of an oil deal in West Texas. Castañeda has also suggested a far more conservative approach to weaning Texas off oil and gas than her Democratic Party peers. Democratic groups in the state also backed a lawsuit that kept multiple Green Party candidates from the 2020 ballot, including Railroad Commission candidate Katija Gruene, who had been running to Castañeda’s left.
Still, Castañeda’s election could significantly tip the scales of power on such a small board. The other two commissioners are Republicans Christi Craddick and Wayne Christian, a former Texas Tea Party Caucus board member and President Trump supporter who has denied that human beings cause climate change.
Castañeda told The Appeal that she hasn’t had to fight to convince Texans that the Railroad Commission needs a member who believes in global warming.
“I’ve been incredibly well-received,” she said. “We’ve had endorsements in every newspaper in Texas—Texans get it.”
And, in order to help even more Texans “get it,” she’d like to change the board’s name to something more appropriate. Perhaps something with “oil” actually in the name.