Jim Wright’s win continues Republican control of Texas’ oil regulator

By Kevin Crowley and Sergio Chapa on 11/4/2020
Texas Railroad Commissioner-elect Jim Wright
Texas Railroad Commissioner-elect Jim Wright

(Bloomberg) --Republican Jim Wright was elected as one of three powerful commissioners at Texas’s oil and gas regulator, ending a high-profile battle that had been called “the most important environmental race in the country,” by his Democratic opponent, Chrysta Castañeda.

Wright was ahead in the vote count overnight, and Castañeda conceded Wednesday in a statement.

“Texas will determine its own energy future, and that is a future that includes an all of the above approach led by fossil fuels,” Wright said in a statement. “Together we will find new ways to improve our climate and environment.”

His victory ensures a Republican lock on the leadership of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees an industry producing more crude than any OPEC member except Saudi Arabia. It’s also a setback for those who see the commission as too lax on environmental issues, particularly the flaring of natural gas.

Natural gas is a by-product from wells drilled to pump more-valuable oil. Texas released or burned off enough gas to supply 5 million American households last year, mostly because producers don’t want to spend the money on the pipelines needed to capture it. It’s not just environmentalists who’ve attacked flaring: even Pioneer Natural Resources Co., a major Texan producer, has called it a “black eye” for the Permian Basin, America’s largest oil field.

Castañeda ran a well-funded campaign that promised to crack down on both the flaring and venting of natural gas. She would have been the first Democrat elected to the post in 26 years.

Often an overlooked, down-ballot race, the election for Texas Railroad Commission garnered more attention than usual this year. Wright burst onto the political scene in March when he surprised pundits by winning the Republican primary, defeating incumbent Commissioner Ryan Sitton. It was later revealed that, as a businessman in the oil services sector, Wright had accepted responsibility in a business deal that soured for 255 environmental violations from the regulator and paid $181,000 in fines.

The race boiled down to Wright’s pro-business, pro-Trump platform versus Castañeda’s pro-environment message. Castañeda, a lawyer from Dallas, hoped her message would appeal to climate-conscious voters in a state that has become a less-certain Republican stronghold in recent years.

Wright, a bullrider-turned-rancher and oil-field service company owner, says the agency needs to make decisions with less deliberation, allowing businesses, employment and oil production to thrive.

The oil and gas industry poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign. Wright received contributions this summer that included more than $54,000 from political action committees for energy companies such as Ovintiv Inc., Energy Transfer LP, ConocoPhillips and Pioneer.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, donated more than $2.6 million to Castañeda’s campaign. In total, Castañeda raised more than $4.1 million and Wright more than $1.3 million.

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