2014 Elections
8:45 am
Tue February 18, 2014

GOP Railroad Commission hopefuls try to be different

Four Republicans running for Texas railroad commissioner are working to differentiate themselves as they compete for a job they call hugely important in a state that leads the nation in oil and gas production. But speaking Thursday at a Republican Women of Austin luncheon, they found plenty to agree upon, including: 

• That Texas’ oil and gas industry — and, in turn, its economy — is thriving despite the federal government’s intervention, and that Texas needs to push back against the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

• That the commission shouldn’t be afraid to ask the Legislature for more money to improve the performance of an agency that can speed up energy production. 

• That, as Texas’ oil and gas regulators, the railroad commissioners should let the free market drive the industry as much as possible, with the agency only rarely stepping in to act as an environmental or safety watchdog. 

• And that Texans should learn more about energy production and the tasks of the oddly named Railroad Commission, which has nothing to do with railroads. 

Candidate Becky Berger said the Railroad Commission is key because it oversees an industry that pumps billions of dollars into the state's economy. “If that’s not the most important agency in Texas, then we don’t have one.” 

The candidates’ similarities leave voters — at least those plugged into the down-ballot race — with little to ponder beyond this question: Who would best regulate the oil and gas industry — an oil and gas engineer (Ryan Sitton), an oil and gas investor and former regulatory attorney (Malachi Boyuls), a geologist (Berger) or a former state lawmaker (Wayne Christian)? 

That’s largely how the candidates sought to differentiate themselves on Thursday. 

Sitton, who with his wife founded and runs PinnacleAIS, an oil and gas technology firm, said his experience running a business would help him spot opportunities to streamline the Railroad Commission, boosting efficiency. And he said his engineering background would prove useful when dealing with highly technical industry questions. 

“I would be the first engineer to serve on the Railroad Commission in 60 years,” Sitton told the audience. 

Boyuls, a partner at the investor St. Augustine Capital Partners who previously paracticed law in Dallas, said he also has industry know-how, but also touted his experience in court, representing Texas’ largest coal producer in a suit against the EPA. 

“We need somebody that can stand up to the federal government and push them out,” he told the Republican group.  “We fought toe-to-toe with the EPA, and we eventually won.” 

Berger, who worked in the oil fields for years beginning in 1977 and has spent 16 years as a precious metals and industrial minerals geologist, said she is the only candidate with mining experience, and that her scientific background will help her explain to Texans how the industry works.  

“Educate, educate, educate,” she replied to the forum’s moderator — Education Commissioner Michael Williams, a former railroad commissioner — when he asked candidates about their top plans for office.  

Berger, an underdog in the race who trails in fundraising, suggested that the agency hold occasional town hall meetings — inviting the public, media and lawmakers — to discuss the nuts and bolts of oil and gas extraction, pushing back against what she and other candidates call misinformation spread by environmental groups. 

Meanwhile, Christian said he would use his clout as a former state representative from Center to advocate on the Railroad Commission’s behalf, and — if necessary — seek more funds for an agency that has long been plagued by budget cuts. 

But Christian said he wasn’t sure whether the agency will need more help, after the Legislature last session gave it permission to use millions of dollars in fees to upgrade decades-old computer and software systems that have strained its capabilities.  

“The improvements we need to make at the commission are already being done,” said Christian, who said he would not propose any big changes to the agency, if elected, but would focus on educating the public about the importance of oil and gas. 

“I think we should continue what we’re doing,” he said. “If it works, in East Texas, we’re told, don’t fix it.”  

The Republican who emerges from the party’s March 4 primary is expected to win the general election. The Railroad Commission has not housed a Democrat in two decades.  

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/02/06/gop-railroad-commission-hopefuls-try-be-different/.