Jim Wright, a hardcore climate change denier and owner of an oil-field services company, is projected to win the race to be Texas’ next energy regulator, preserving the Republicans’ quarter-century hold on the Texas Railroad Commission and defeating a better-funded Democrat.
The race for the open slot on the three-seat commission ― which, despite its name, oversees the Lone Star State’s vast oil, gas and mining industries ― had been widely seen as Democrats’ best chance to win a statewide election there in nearly three decades.
Earlier this year, Wright defeated Ryan Sitton, the better-funded and respected Republican incumbent, in a surprise upset during the GOP primary. A relative unknown facing fines from the very commission he’ll now join ― as well as lawsuits accusing him of fraud ― Wright seemed like a prime target for Democratic challenger Chrysta Castañeda, an engineer and energy attorney who ran on curbing pollution that even big oil and gas giants support regulating.
Her moderate, technocratic approach won endorsements from major metro daily newspapers in Texas and a last-minute $2.6 million campaign infusion from billionaire donor Michael Bloomberg. But that wasn’t enough to sway voters in a state that remains a Republican stronghold, particularly when fewer voters than at any point in recent history are casting ballots for candidates from both parties.
With 92% of the vote counted, Wright had a 10-point lead over Castañeda by Wednesday.
“I don’t think voters are looking for somebody who is going to take a really adversarial stance toward the industry,” said Gabriel Collins, the Baker Botts Fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University in Houston. “What most voters probably want is to try to get somebody who they think is going to be a referee to call a fair game and is not too close to industry, nor too close to environmental pressure groups.”
Voters certainly got the latter in Wright.
Not only has Wright claimed he’s unconvinced by the scientific reality that fossil fuel emissions are causing climate change, he told an oil industry podcast last month that “solar, wind and all those” actually “harm the environment worse” than natural gas. Moreover, he said, renewables are only “good when technology is there to make sure they’re good.”
“Today, I don’t think the technology truly exists. It was an idea. It caught on and hey, we’re going to save the planet because our icebergs aren’t going to melt anymore. You haven’t convinced me at all of that,” Wright said on the podcast “Digital Wildcatters.” “I don’t see the research that proves that. Again, my own theory is, I think the Earth continues to evolve just like we have for millions of years, and we’re gonna go through different times.”
During the campaign, Castañeda zeroed in on flaring ― the process by which oil drillers burn off excess methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas, from wells ― as the key policy area where she’d push for change. Texas flares nearly as much gas each year as all of its households consume, wasting some $750 million worth of the fuel in the state’s Permian Basin in 2018 alone.
Flaring worldwide contributes about 1% of the man-made carbon dioxide emissions causing climate change. And recent studies using satellites have found that emissions of unburned methane over the Permian Basin, which stretches from West Texas to eastern New Mexico, are significantly higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency estimates ― suggesting more is leaking from wells and pipelines than previously understood.
Industry giants such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and BP have called for increased regulation of methane, and invested in equipment to capture gas and plug leaks. But smaller drillers, particularly those owned by private equity firms that took risky bets before oil prices plummeted this year, have less incentive to make those changes.
“I don’t think voters are looking for somebody who is going to take a really adversarial stance toward the industry.”
“You’re getting investor pressure on the oil industry itself so the oil industry wants to change,” said Marianne Kah, the former chief economist at drilling giant ConocoPhillips, who now serves on the advisory board of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “The biggest problem is the smallest players who don’t want to do these things... and even though the majors are making the investment to try to stop flaring, without regulation you don’t stop this.”
The Trump administration rescinded federal rules on methane emissions in August. Wright is unlikely to support a new crackdown on flaring.
“I’m not saying that that flaring doesn’t have some impact, but does it have the true impact that you see in media today? I don’t believe that,” he said the podcast. “Can you tell me of any exact research that really says that flaring is actually harming our atmosphere and any worse than emissions from a car, or anything else that they’re claiming is making changes to our climate that we see today?”
The other two Republican commissioners largely share Wright’s views. In 2018, Commissioner Wayne Christian wrote an op-ed arguing that the “science on climate change is not settled.” Commissioner Christi Craddock has routinely railed against regulations on greenhouse gases, and called attempts to connect 2016 flooding in Texas and Louisiana to climate change an “incredibly inappropriate appeal” to “emotions on behalf of the climate agenda.”
“The people on the commission are climate change deniers,” said Gunnar Schade, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University. “Some express it in ways others would not. But they’re all essentially in agreement.”