This Obscure Texas Race Could Have A Big Impact On Climate Change

Luke Warford, a former energy consultant, is running for a seat on Texas’ influential Railroad Commission.
Luke Warford (D) is challenging Railroad Commission Chairman Wayne Christian (R). He believes the state's February power outages created hunger for change at the powerful state agency.
Luke Warford (D) is challenging Railroad Commission Chairman Wayne Christian (R). He believes the state's February power outages created hunger for change at the powerful state agency.
Luke Warford Campaign

A seat on Texas’ Railroad Commission doesn’t have the ring of governor, U.S. senator, or member of Congress.

But thanks to its authority over the Lone Star State’s mammoth fossil-fuel industry and pipeline network, the three-person panel quietly wields a lot of power.

With that power in mind, Luke Warford, an energy consultant-turned-Texas Democratic Party strategist, announced Wednesday that he plans to challenge Republican Commissioner Wayne Christian, who currently chairs the commission, in the coming midterm elections.

“This is one of the most important and impactful elected offices in the state of Texas, and the people who have been in power in this office ... essentially use the office to advance their own interests and the interests of their friends, and aren’t using their office to serve Texans,” Warford told HuffPost.

In a one-minute video accompanying his campaign launch, Warford puts it more dramatically.

“The Texas Railroad Commission is the most important climate election in the country,” he declares.

Texans shelter in a furniture store in Houston after a massive winter storm in February knocked out heat and electricity for millions of residents.
Texans shelter in a furniture store in Houston after a massive winter storm in February knocked out heat and electricity for millions of residents.
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Warford, who moved to Austin in 2019 and became the Texas Democratic Party’s chief strategy officer shortly thereafter, delivers a two-part pitch for his candidacy.

First, he is committed to forcing oil and natural gas extractors and pipelines to weatherize their infrastructure in a way that would prevent future energy shortages during an unexpected bout of extreme cold, heat or precipitation.

This past February, Winter Storm Uri, a snow and ice storm, froze natural gas production facilities and pipelines, leaving millions of Texans without heat and electricity for days. The power and heating outages resulted in hundreds of deaths, both directly from freezing and from related causes, like a lack of access to needed medical care.

Warford blames the Railroad Commission for failing to actually regulate the state’s enormous fossil fuel sector after an icy winter storm in 2011 prompted outages.

Refusing to invest in weatherization is often more profitable for energy producers because they can charge higher prices if a weather event constrains supply, according to Warford. That, in turn, motivates industry-friendly commissioners to go easy on energy producers who want to spend as little money as possible on weatherization.

The commissioners “didn’t hold companies accountable,” Warford said. “They didn’t regulate and do what they’re supposed to do.”

In addition, Warford blames the Railroad Commission for failing to limit methane emissions generated during the extraction of oil and gas in the state. Over a 20-year period, methane is 84-86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, making it a major contributor to global climate change.

Methane sometimes leaks from oil and gas equipment that is not properly sealed. At other times, oil producers engage in controlled releases of excess natural gas through practices known as “flaring” and “venting” that often result in unnecessary methane emissions.

“The grid failing fundamentally changes the calculus around this race.”

- Luke Warford, Democratic candidate, Texas Railroad Commission

Methane emissions are particularly significant in the Permian Basin shale oilfield in West Texas, according to Environmental Defense Fund measurements. And much of the flaring there is happening without the necessary permits from the Texas Railroad Commission. An August report from conservation group Earthworks found that 69-84% of observed flares were not permitted.

The commission has regulatory power at its disposal to crack down on methane leaks that “they’re not actually enforcing,” Warford said. “They’re massively understaffed, and they’re not applying the regulation evenly.”

“That puts companies following the regulation fundamentally at a disadvantage, because there’s a cost there,” he added.

Texas also emits more carbon dioxide than any state in the country. And while promising to respect the ongoing role of fossil fuels in the state’s economy, Warford says he hopes to use his influence to help Texas diversify its energy sources as well.

“Oil and gas is definitely the quarterback,” he said. “But on a football team, you don’t want 11 quarterbacks. We also want Texas leadership in wind, solar and geothermal.”

If elected, Warford’s power would be limited, since the commission makes decisions based on a majority vote and Warford would be the commission’s only Democrat. What he would have the power to do is use his bully pulpit, including an ability to convene public hearings, to draw attention to decisions with which he disagrees and any conflicts of interest at the commission.

Every commissioner serves staggered six-year terms, meaning that a single commission seat comes up for a vote every two years. In an optimistic scenario, a successful use of the commission’s public platform in Warford’s first two years could help Democrats take a second commission seat in 2022. He could also help implement any federal regulations President Joe Biden enacts as part of his plan to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030.

Texas’ primary elections are set to take place on March 1. Warford is the first person to announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Wayne Christian’s commission seat.

Of course, the hardest part for Warford will be winning the general election in Texas, a state where Democrats have not won a statewide election in 27 years ― to say nothing of doing so in a midterm election cycle when party leaders are already expecting major losses.

Wayne Christian (R) chairs Texas' Railroad Commission, which supervises the state's fossil-fuel industry and infrastructure. Critics say he has failed to properly regulate energy producers.
Wayne Christian (R) chairs Texas' Railroad Commission, which supervises the state's fossil-fuel industry and infrastructure. Critics say he has failed to properly regulate energy producers.
Harry Cabluck/Associated Press

Texas Democrats made a similar pitch about the importance of the Railroad Commission in 2020 when oil and gas attorney Chrysta Castañeda made a serious run against Jim Wright, a climate-change-denying oil producer who ousted the more moderate incumbent commissioner in a Republican primary.

Wright, who has been fined by the Railroad Commission in the past, ended up defeating Castañeda by nine percentage points despite billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s last-minute infusion of $2.6 million on Castañeda’s behalf.

Warford nonetheless believes that Texans’ frustrations with the electrical grid failures during February’s storm and a growing understanding of how the commission’s coziness with fossil fuel interests exacerbates climate change give him a fighting chance at the seat.

“The grid failing fundamentally changes the calculus around this race,” Warford told HuffPost.

Even as Democrats in many states suffer from the effects of “thermostatic politics” ― a political science term for voters demanding the opposite of whatever the governing party is implementing ― Democrats in Texas stand to benefit from being out of power, according to Warford.

“In the same way you see national frustration toward people in power, the people in power here for a long time have been Republicans,” he said. “And Texans are frustrated. Texans are looking for something new.”

A recent public poll backs up Warford’s political instincts. Sixty percent of Texas voters disapprove of how state lawmakers have handled electric grid reliability, compared with 15% of voters who approve of it, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released in October. The gap between approval and disapproval was greater on that question than on any other in the survey.

Warford also hopes to benefit from the enthusiasm unleashed by a yet-to-be-determined field of Democrats seeking to challenge Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is seeking a third term in office.

Rather than point to Castañeda’s 2020 bid as a model, Warford sees lessons to learn from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s 2018 run. In an election cycle when Republicans ousted a Democratic senator and maintained control of Florida’s governorship, Fried won her race on a message of protecting Florida’s waterways, reducing the gun lobby’s influence over concealed-carry permitting, and expanding access to medical marijuana. Fried is now Florida’s only Democrat holding a statewide elected office.

“The way she did that was by running on a very narrow issue set and running on things that are very popular for Florida voters,” Warford said.

Chris D’Angelo and Alexander Kaufman contributed reporting.

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