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A Republican Oilman Is Running for Texas’s Top Oil-Regulation Seat

The Texas Railroad Commission is the most important climate race you’ve never heard of. And GOP candidate Jim Wright is pretty sketchy.

Flared natural gas burns in Garden City, Texas.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Flared natural gas burns in Garden City, Texas.

In recent weeks, Texas—long considered reliably red—has become a toss-up in the presidential race. That has interesting implications for one of the most important and under-covered climate races in the country. Engineer and lawyer Chrysta Castañeda is running for one of three seats on the GOP-controlled Texas Railroad Commission, the primary regulator for the state’s expansive oil and gas industry. Castañeda wants to restrict gas flaring, the practice by which drillers burn off fuel they can’t sell, releasing prodigious amounts of methane. If the new blue momentum holds, it could allow her to become the first Democrat to win statewide office in Texas since 1994.

Castañeda’s Republican opponent, Jim Wright, is in the oil industry. And so far, the obscurity of this race has allowed his wackier statements to escape national attention. During a podcast interview earlier this month, he wondered aloud whether climate change was just another example of the planet “evolving,” suggested—despite Texas being the top wind-power producer in the nation—that he doesn’t believe real wind and solar energy are viable, and explained that he’s mostly running for the Railroad Commission (commonly abbreviated as RRC) to allow his industry to write its own rules.

Wright owns four businesses, including an oil-field service company. A former oil-field waste management company he founded and sold off, but of which he continued to be listed as president, according to court filings—Dewitt Recyclable Products—had its main facility shut down by the RRC in 2017 for storing waste directly on the ground and in un-permitted pits, and allowing frac fluid (a chemical mixture used in drilling operations) to leach out. As the Houston Chronicle reported, the Commission held Wright responsible for $181,000 worth of violations. Wright and his attorney argued that he didn’t have operational control of the facility, though he ended up paying the fine.

Wright also faces an accusation of fraud from the oil-field services firm Petro Swift LLC, which alleges in a lawsuit that he engaged in “fraudulent transfers” to avoid paying Petro Swift for construction work. As a result, the head of Petro Swift has denounced him. “I always thought the Democratic side is anti-oil, anti-fracking, so let’s have a Republican on the Railroad Commission,” Petro Swift co-owner Travis McRae recently told a local Texas newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. “In this particular case, based on personal experience, I don’t want that dude running anything—even if that means voting Democratic.”

The podcast on which Wright aired his climate skepticism was Oil and Gas Startups, hosted by Colin McLelland and Jake Corley. Likening regulations to the Bible, Wright told them that “there [is] a lot of interpretation” in regulatory language and complained that “inexperienced” regulators—those who haven’t had extensive careers in the industry—create delays that he says have cut into “my customer base.”

Then Wright told the story of how he came to run for the RRC. It started with an attempt to get oil industry folks into the process of drafting RRC regulations. “I actually had some of our customers and a couple other people that said, ‘Hey, we’ll volunteer our time if we get the Railroad Commission to accept us to come in and help write guidance documents for staff members to kind of follow so we get to a better level playing field,’” he said. “I actually went up, I talked to one of the commissioners. They said, ‘Yeah, we think that’s a great idea. We’ll give you access to staff.’ Well, lo and behold … we didn’t meet one [RRC] staff member that really wanted to work with an outside task force to write guidance documents. They were adamantly against that.” TNR contacted Wright for comment for this piece, asking him, among other things, which industry members were on this alleged proposed task force, and which commissioner encouraged him to have industry allies help write their own regulations. Wright has not responded as of publication time.

In the podcast interview with Corley and McLelland, Wright said that after he was stymied in the attempt to influence Railroad Commission guidance, the members of this industry task force asked him to run for a seat himself. The next day, on an anniversary trip with his wife, he had a private plane stop in Austin so he could file to compete in the primary. Wright won that primary in March. To add another layer of complexity, however, some have speculated that his upset victory against Commissioner Ryan Sitton had a lot to do with Wright’s name, which he shares with a longtime, now-deceased speaker of the House.

During the podcast interview, Wright doubled down on some climate-skeptic points he’s mentioned before, questioning whether the fossil fuel industry and flaring are even contributing to climate change. (They are.) “Can you tell me of any exact research that really says that flaring is actually harming our atmosphere any worse than emissions from a car or anything else that they’re claiming is making changes to our climate that we see today?” he asked. “There’s a lot of documents out there, but nobody’s proven to me exactly, and pinpoint what, what is really hurting our atmosphere.”

Uncontroversial research on fossil fuels’ contribution to global warming through both carbon dioxide—a by-product of burning oil, gasoline, and coal—and methane, which is shorter-lived but 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide, is of course readily available. Fossil fuel companies and car companies themselves produced some of that research, and have known about fossil fuels’ global warming effect for over six decades. When it comes to methane, specifically, researchers with the Global Carbon Project noted this summer that a recent uptick in concentrations of atmospheric methane “is tracking trajectories modeled in aggressive warming scenarios.” In North America, they wrote, increased oil and gas extraction has raised methane concentrations by an estimated five million tons per year.

The industry claims it can self-regulate on both flaring and methane leaks. But in September, audio from a June 2019 meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America leaked to The New York Times revealed industry insiders worried that the “tremendous” amount of gas they flare could pose a threat to their public image, undermining attempts to present gas as a clean-burning fuel.

There’s a reason flaring is such a hot issue in the Texas RRC race. Flaring in the Permian Basin—the heart of the shale boom—reached a high of nearly 900 million cubic feet of natural gas per day in the third quarter of 2019. While the RRC officially forbids flaring after the first 10 days of operations at a drill site, exemptions from the commission allowed companies to burn off an estimated $750 million worth of natural gas in just one year. Contrast that with Wright’s statement during his podcast interview: “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,” Wright said.

The interview got weirder, too, with Wright likening global warming to evolution. “I can tell you that summers are going to get hotter, whether we had flaring or we had cars, because the earth is evolving … I’m not sure where the blame lies,” he said. (Just this week, half of oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico was shut down as Hurricane Zeta made landfall, one of several climate-fueled storms to have battered the city in recent years; 70 percent of Houston-area voters say they’ve experienced flooding in the last year.)

In the podcast, Wright also made some odd and unsupported remarks about renewable energy: “I can tell you, I think they harm our environment worse than our natural gas problems are today.” He went on to talk about not seeing flocks of geese fly overhead like he did when he was younger, seemingly echoing Trump’s insinuation at the last presidential debate that wind turbines kill “all the birds”—even though, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wind turbines kill only an estimated 234,000 birds each year, while cats kill 2.4 million.

Then he suggested viable renewable energy technology doesn’t actually exist yet. “I think that solar, wind—all those are 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. I don’t see the research that proves that,” he said. It’s an odd stance to take in Texas, which produces more total wind power than any state in the country. Wind’s role in Texas’s energy mix has in fact grown considerably in the last several years, and it now accounts for 17 percent of all generation there. Its solar capacity also doubled between 2017 and 2019.

Clean energy is popular with Texas voters, two-thirds of whom say renewables development should be prioritized over gas. Sixty-five percent support government action to address climate change. Young voters—statistically more concerned about the climate crisis than their elders—are already turning out in Texas in record numbers. Seven times more Texans under 30 have already voted this election than voted overall in 2016, according to a study released on Monday from Tufts University.

Wright closed the podcast by appealing directly to voters: “I just want to say that people really need to know what all this means for their future. Look at the candidates on the ballot this year to make sure that they investigate who they are and what they stand for.” Texans might want to ponder that one.