The Austin Chronicle

Three Dems Aim at Railroad Commission's Williams

By Amy Smith, February 15, 2008, News

One of the first things the Legislature should do when it comes back to Austin next year is change the name of the identity-challenged Texas Railroad Commission, which is actually the regulatory authority of the oil and gas industry. In 2005, lawmakers took a small step toward clearing the air by shifting the agency's little remaining railroad oversight to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Still, the agency's misnomer has already caused an embarrassing slip for the perceived front-runner in the Democratic primary race to unseat GOP Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams. Art Hall, a former San Anton­io City Council member and one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, listed "railroad safety" among the many issues he intends to work on if elected. Hall subsequently removed the erroneous pledge from his campaign website, but not before the error had been thoroughly ridiculed on a number of political blogs. Hall, who has the support of big-name Democrats, from former U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros to former Gov. Dolph Briscoe to 2006 gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, is a lot like other well-intentioned commission hopefuls (and wannabe appointees) who have sought a spot on the three-member panel without fully understanding what it is the commission does. History has shown a commission seat can serve as an ideal launching pad for the politically ambitious. But Hall insists he's not a political leapfrogger and would be honored to stay on the commission as long as voters keep re-electing him. "If I had the opportunity to continue serving on the [San Antonio] City Council, I would still be there," said Hall, who was term-limited out of office in 2007. (An interesting side note to Hall's candidacy is that should he become the Democratic nominee, Texas voters would have their first opportunity to choose between two African-American candidates for a statewide office, against GOP incumbent Williams.)

Hall's most serious opponent is Dale Henry, who, despite being seriously underfunded, is the only candidate with hands-on industry experience and who has worked as a private contractor for the commission. This is Henry's third run for a commission seat. In his 2006 campaign, he spent less than $50,000 – most of it from his own wallet – and drew more votes than Gov. Rick Perry, losing to a relatively new Perry appointee, who had the luxury of running as an "incumbent" on the Republican ticket – typically the way railroad commissioners get their political kick-start. Henry, a plainspoken man from Lampasas, says he's eager to eliminate the practice of "back-alley politics" at the commission. "This time, the Democrats are getting their act together and filling all those empty precinct chairs we had," he said of the state party's lackluster enthusiasm in the 2006 election. Precinct chairs are essential get-out-the-vote catalysts in general elections.

The third candidate in the race is Mark Thomp­son, whose website notes that he is a disabilities-rights advocate and therapist for blind children and adults.

The cynics among us believe the oil and gas industry is perfectly happy with the public's lack of knowledge, and, by default, lack of interest, in the functions of the commission. But the agency's oversight and enforcement responsibilities have lapsed to the point where it's starting to catch the attention of the state Court of Appeals, which recently handed Aus­tin environmental lawyer David Frederick and several North Texas families a rare courtroom victory over the Railroad Commission. "We almost never win," Frederick said. "But it was a small victory that the Railroad Commission is blowing way out of proportion." Indeed, the agency is vigorously contesting the court's finding that the commission "abused its discretion" when it failed to consider the public's interest in granting a permit to a company for an underground injection well in Wise Co. The well would have served as a depository for commercial oil and gas waste. The commission has asked the court to reconsider its ruling and, failing a satisfactory answer, will appeal to the state Supreme Court. "The Railroad Commission," Frederick asserts, "tends to believe that if it's good for the oil and gas industry, it's good for the whole state of Texas."

The three candidates hoping to oust Chair­man Williams all propose massive changes designed to clean up and protect the state's water supply, strengthen enforcement rules, and place the public welfare ahead of the oil and gas energy. Moreover, the candidates vow to pursue a renewable-energies agenda. The two stronger candidates – Hall and Henry – would likely head down two different paths to achieve similar goals, with Hall, whose wife is an attorney for San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp., reaching out to both sides to try to build a consensus and Henry taking a hard-nosed populist stance. "We've got to take care of the people," he says. "They're getting hit hard [by the industry], and the commissioners need to stop being rubber stamps."

Frederick, for his part, doesn't have much faith that the commission's inherent business-friendly behavior will dramatically change anytime soon, chiefly because of the way commissioners secure their spots in the first place – with a patronage appointment from the governor's office. He says he hasn't followed this particular race but doubts that an outside candidate will have a snowball's chance of breaking an incumbent's hold on the seat. As he sees it, if Jim Hightower, the notable good-government advocate, couldn't bust the lock on the commission in his bid several decades ago, then nobody can. "Hardly anyone in the state pays any attention to the Railroad Commission," he says, "except the oil and gas industry."

Democratic Railroad Commission candidates Art Hall and Dale Henry want to unseat Republican incumbent Michael Williams. Not shown: Democratic candidate Mark Thompson.

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