The election for Texas Railroad Commissioner is usually a sleeper.
But in the midst of the Barnett Shale gas drilling boom, it’s a race to watch for North Texas residents.
The railroad commission, which no longer has anything to do with trains, has one job: regulating oil, gas and mining.
On issue after issue related to urban gas drilling — pipelines, saltwater disposal, well safety — residents have learned just how much authority the railroad commission has. And this year, the race features a Democratic challenger preaching about "corruption," and a rising Republican star who has his eye on higher office.
Michael Williams, the commission chairman, is the only African-American to hold a statewide office in Texas, and he got to make a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. He’s heard a lot of the complaints about the railroad commission, and he says he’s working on them.
"We’ll have a range of issues that are new to the state and new to the industry because of the Barnett Shale," he said.
The challenger, Mark Thompson, said he decided to run for office after learning about a series of pipeline explosions. He has hammered Williams for taking campaign contributions from the industry it regulates.
"The Republicans messed up the banking, the energy. They haven’t done their job," Thompson said. "They’ve been so busy getting themselves elected all the time, they haven’t thought about the people."
Thompson is not the railroad commission’s only critic. In the last two years, the agency has come under fire from several directions:
The state auditor’s office issued a scathing report about the commission’s inspection practices. Forty percent of the state’s 360,000 oil and gas wells have not been inspected in the last five years. In Tarrant County, the figure is 30 percent, according to railroad commission data. And the auditors reported that state inspectors routinely accepted gifts and free meals from companies they inspected.
A series of reports by WFAA/Channel 8 and The Dallas Morning News showed that the railroad commission was slow to act when it learned about faulty natural gas couplings that were linked to fire and explosions at several homes in North Texas.
A state appeals court ordered the commissioners to reconsider a case in which they allowed a saltwater disposal well on a rural road. The court ruled that the commissioners took too narrow a definition of "public interest" when they ignored complaints about the potential for truck traffic from the well. Commissioners said the disposal well was in the public interest because it would help produce oil and gas. The case is now being appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
The railroad commission issues permits for natural gas pipeline companies, which have the power to condemn private property. But it does not review pipeline routes or exercise any significant control over the companies until after the lines are built.
Williams said he has pushed to shift inspectors to the Barnett Shale, and he has asked the Texas Legislature for more inspectors. But he said there will never be enough inspectors to do the kind of regular inspections that critics have pushed for. Instead, the agency will have to concentrate on the highest priorities.
"The greatest opportunity for harm is when you’re starting and finishing a well," he said. "We’re not like a restaurant, where you’re cooking every day."
On saltwater wells, Williams said, the commissioners believe that traffic and environmental issues are important, but "we just don’t have the authority to take that into consideration."
"If the Legislature wants to tell us we have jurisdiction over traffic issues, we’ll take over traffic issues," he said.
He said he also wants to encourage recycling of saltwater and other drilling waste, once the technology is viable.
Likewise, Williams said, it will take a new law to give cities and landowners more rights when dealing with pipeline companies.
"As a proponent of local control, I’m not opposed to that," he said.
Thompson had no political experience and voted only sporadically before he decided to run for office. He said he became interested in the railroad commission after a fatal natural gas explosion at a home in Garland, his hometown. The explosion was blamed on faulty natural gas couplings, and news reports showed that Williams and the other commissioners were slow to act on previous reports about the couplings.
"He didn’t do anything; those deaths were preventable," Thompson said in an interview.
Likewise, he said, the railroad commission should have hired more staff to prepare for the Barnett Shale boom.
"I’m surprised — all these rigs coming in and didn’t they know about it," he said. "How come it took so long to actually open an office here in Fort Worth. It’s like they finally get a clue."
Thompson got 48 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and won the runoff with 59 percent. He said he’s successful because people are tired of the status quo.
Williams took more than $200,000 from oil and gas industry representatives in the last cycle, and accepted a pair of Super Bowl tickets from an electrical utility in 2004. He dismisses Thompson’s allegations.
Williams is open about his desire for another elected office, and he said taking campaign funds — even Super Bowl tickets — from oil and gas companies is legal.
He said he frequently votes against companies and people who have contributed to his campaign.
"The only way he [Thompson] knows about it is because it’s on my campaign report," Williams said.
He was asked what the companies want for their contributions.
"They just want good government," Williams said.
Texas Railroad Commission
The agency no longer has anything to do with trains or transportation. Its only function is regulating the oil, natural gas and mining industries in Texas. Commissioners are elected statewide for six-year terms and earn $137,000 annually.
Michael Williams (incumbent)
Background: Williams, a lawyer, started his career in the U.S. Justice Department, where he prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members, among other cases. He later served in the U.S. Education Department and worked in the private sector before being appointed to the railroad commission by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. He was re-elected in 2000 and 2002.
Goals: Williams wants to add more staff to the agency and promote clean energy such as wind and clean-burning coal. He also wants to promote compressed natural gas as a vehicle fuel and encourage young people to study science, math and engineering.
Unusual: Williams has twice turned down raises that the Legislature approved. He still earns the same pay, $99,000 a year, as when he was appointed.
Background: Thompson was a park and Capitol policeman in Austin before he quit law enforcement to become a counselor for blind people. He decided to run for railroad commissioner in 2007, after researching a home explosion that killed two people in Garland, his hometown. He believes that the railroad commission was slow to act after learning about previous explosions linked to the same cause and that some of the deaths were preventable.
Goals: Thompson has vowed not to take campaign contributions from energy industry political action committees. He wants the state to hire more inspectors and wants to encourage companies to recycle more of their saltwater waste.
We’ll have a range of issues that are new."
Those deaths were preventable." Mark Thompson, on a fatal gas explosion in Garland.