Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Ask the Candidates: Should the Railroad Commission Be Reformed?

Millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry go into the campaign coffers of those elected to regulate the industry.

Glen Argov/Landov

Millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry go into the campaign coffers of those elected to regulate the industry.

Most Candidates for Texas’ Oil and Gas Regulator Want Changes

Take a peek a little ways down your ballot in the primaries this year and you’ll see the race for a spot on the Railroad Commission, the state’s powerful oil and gas regulator. We’ve been working to get the candidates to “eat their vegetables” when it comes to the policy issues at stake, asking each to answer a questionnaire on issues ranging from manmade earthquakes to eminent domain.

Each day this week we’ll be posting their answers — well, at least from six of them. Out of the four Republican candidates in the race, only one — Becky Berger — responded to the questionnaire. (To the campaigns of Malachi BoyulsWayne Christian and Ryan Sitton  — we’re still hoping to hear back from you.)

Today’s questions deal with ethical and campaign finance reforms for the commission. The three Railroad commissioners get most of their campaign funds from the very industry they regulate. One of the candidates this race, Republican Ryan Sitton, has even said that he plans to keep working at his oil and gas consulting firm if elected to the commission.

Should lines be drawn? Should commissioners refuse campaign contributions from companies with cases before the commission? If elected, will they serve their full six-year term before running for another office? Those questions and more were put to all of the candidates. They’re based on reforms that the Texas legislature failed to pass during the last session under pressure from current Railroad Commissioners.

Campaign Reforms

  • Resign-to-Run: One recommendation for reforming the commission is that commissioners should resign from the commission before campaigning for another office if more than 18 months remained in the term. The office has seen high turnover as commissioners leave to pursue other campaigns. Most of the candidates that responded to the questionnaire said they would resign if running for another office. Some, like Republican Becky Berger, said they would not seek another office if elected. Democratic candidate Steve Brown said that he would “comply with the will of the legislature.” Mark Miller, a Libertarian candidate, said it was “extremely unlikely” that he would serve more than one six-year term. (It is unclear where Republican candidates Malachi BoyulsWayne Christian and Ryan Sitton stand on this and the following issues because they did not respond.)
  • Sticking Around: The commission has been known as political springboard in Texas, where commissioners spend a few years raising money from the oil and gas industry before seeking higher office. (The track record on this hasn’t been very successful as of late, however.) So we asked the candidates if they would serve a full six-year term before running for another office, and all of the respondents said they would.
  • Campaign Contributions: Another reform proposed but never passed last legislative session was a provision limit when commissioners could take campaign contributions. The change would have barred contributions during much of the commissioners’ terms, only allowing them to raise money for re-election during the year-and-a-half before an election to avoid conflicts of interest. All of the candidates that responded to the questionnaire said they would agree to this rule, with the exception of Republican Becky Berger. Berger said “I don’t believe this is a realistic requirement and would not commit unless that is a law. It creates an undue disadvantage to down ballot candidates since it is harder to raise money for these races.” In the Democratic race, Dale Henry said he would not accept any campaign contributions at any time. His opponent, Democrat Steve Brown, said he didn’t think commissioners should raise money throughout their terms, and “would support a designated fundraising period for Commissioners not up for re-election.”

Ethics Reforms

  • Conflicts of Interest: One of the recommendations of last year’s reform process (known as a Sunset Review) was that Railroad Commissioners be barred from accepting campaign funds from companies involved in disputed cases before the commission. All of the candidates that responded to the questionnaire pledged they wouldn’t accept contributions in those cases. (It is unclear where Republican candidates Malachi BoyulsWayne Christian and Ryan Sitton stand on this and the following issue because they did not respond.)
  • Fighting the Legislature: Efforts by the state legislature to reform the commission failed for the second time in a row during the last session. That’s unprecedented. The agency will be up for review again in three years. Will fight reforms again? We put that question to the candidates, and all of the respondents said they would consider or work with the legislature to enact reforms suggested during the Sunset Review process. Democrat Steve Brown said he will “work with the Legislature to craft reforms that begin to reconstruct the crony culture at the Railroad Commission, and return it to its consumer advocacy roots.” Republican Becky Berger said she would “work diligently with the Sunset Review committee to make appropriate reforms for the agency and if I disagree with a particular suggestion I will defend that opinion with facts.” 

Up tomorrow: Where do the candidates stand on the rise in manmade earthquakes linked to oil and gas drilling activity in Texas, and what they would )or wouldn’t) do about it as a Railroad Commissioner.

Early voting for the Republican and Democratic primaries is currently underway and runs until Friday; the primary is next Tuesday, March 4. Unless one of the candidates receives more than fifty percent of the vote in each party, the top two candidates will go to a runoff, with voting on May 27.

This is the second in a series of questions for the candidates for Railroad Commissioner. Part 1 asked if the name of the commission should be changed to better reflect its mission; Part 3 asked the candidates what the Railroad Commission should do about manmade earthquakes linked to oil and gas drilling activity. You can read more about the Railroad Commission here
Participants: Becky Berger, RepublicanSteve Brown, DemocratDale Henry, DemocratJason Kute, LibertarianMark Miller, LibertarianMartina Salinas, Green PartyRepublican candidates Malachi BoyulsWayne Christian and Ryan Sitton did not respond.


  • Paul Rowe

    My agenda is to break the stranglehold of the two gangs that have seized our government and hold us hostage. They hold secret meetings to divide up the turf. Their actions, so far as I am concerned, amount to subversion for their own gain and for their aggrandizment.

    To that end, I challenge StateImpact to omit party affiliation. Just leave it out.

    If nothing else, please just look at a version of each story with party names removed, and notice how your attitude shifts. Go Longhorns & Aggies & Owls. But let’s leave Yea Red Team and Yea Blues out of our psyche insofar as possible.

    Notice the bias and the presumptions you as the reader picked up about me from my three examples.

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