The Climate Deniers Regulating Texas Oil and Gas Have Somehow Avoided Blackout Scrutiny

A Texas and American flag fly over oil trucks.
A Texas and American flag fly over oil trucks.
Photo: Tony Gutierrez (AP)

Texas’ blackouts were, experts agree, the result of multiple failures in the energy system, including failures of oil and gas infrastructure. Yet in late March, one of Texas’s most powerful oil and gas regulators, Christi Craddick, told the Texas legislature that oil and gas operators “were not the problem.” In fact, Craddick said, “the oil and gas industry was the solution.”

Advertisement

But emails obtained by Earther show that the powerful commission that Craddick sits on, the Texas Railroad Commission, had such a loose regulatory grasp on the industry that it may have lacked crucial information on supply during the crisis. Craddick and the two other commissioners have rushed in the weeks following the crisis not to emphasize reforms they are making in their own organization, but rather to falsely cast blame on renewables.

Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission (known as the RRC) doesn’t actually have anything to do with railroads; the name is a holdover from the RRC’s founding in 1891. Instead, the commission regulates the state’s sprawling oil and gas industry, including the vast network of pipelines. The commission is made up of three members, each of whom are elected by the public and serve six-year terms. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Texas, no Democrat has sat on the RRC since 1994. The current slate also includes two commissioners who have denied climate science.

The three commissioners, which include Craddick as well as Commissioners Jim Wright and Wayne Christian, “are probably some of the most important oil and gas regulators in the world,” said Kelly Mitchell, a senior analyst for Documented, a watchdog organization. “The fact that at least two of the three of them have a history of climate denial is troubling, to say the least.”

Equally troubling is that the group in charge of overseeing the oil and gas infrastructure that powers a good portion of Texas’s grid doesn’t require oil and gas producers to log any sort of information on well status during emergencies. In a Feb. 16 email exchange seen by Earther and obtained by Documented via a public records request, Wright’s director of public affairs sent some colleagues questions from reporters asking how many wells had been shut down due to the storm and how much production had been lost.

“We have no data available to respond to these questions,” Joe Stasulli, the RRC’s assistant deputy director, responded. “Operators are not required to file a Well Status report (G-10/W-10) to show wells to be shut-in unless they are for an extended period. Production is reported the last day of the month for the previous month. So February’s production is not due till March 31st, then we typically process and post the data in mid-April.”

Advertisement

“In other words, we have to be reliant on operators’ anecdotal information to get a handle on how much production is being forfeited/postponed?” Christopher Hotchkiss, Commissioner Jim Wright’s general counsel, replied.

“Correct,” Stasulli replied. “And no, we do not require any additional data from operators during emergency times.”

Advertisement

Analysts overwhelmingly agree that the February blackouts saw multiple energy systems—including oil and gas—fail due to the lack of weatherized equipment. Even as the RRC lacked data about how much of the infrastructure it regulates was down, Christian blasted renewables as “intermittent, unreliable energy” at an emergency agency meeting a day after the email exchange.

The day after that, records obtained by the Texas Tribune show Wright forwarded an email from a citizen inquiring about the regulations the RRC had implemented before the storm to ensure reliable natural gas supply. In the email, the Tribune reported Wright seemed to recognize a potential PR crisis for the RRC, and called it “the greatest issue we will face from this event.” By late February, Christian, Craddick, and other elected officials in Texas were consistently and constantly attacking renewables as the cause of the crisis, sharing talking points from denier groups and authoring op-eds in national newspapers blaming “unreliable power.”

Advertisement

It seemed that, in the initial wake of the blackouts, this misdirection may have worked. Mitchell pointed out that while officials at the Texas grid regulator, ERCOT, and members of the Public Utility Commission have been fired or resigned after the crisis, none of the RRC’s members have hinted at stepping down from their positions—despite the large-scale failures of the industry it is supposed to be regulating. Similarly, Texas lawmakers have introduced few bills that address the oil and gas industry itself, focusing instead on (needed) fixes to grid operations.

“The RRC was in constant contact with operators during the winter storm,” a spokesperson for the RRC said in an email when asked if the commission would be putting any more regulations on reporting from producers in place. “For example, the RRC coordinated daily phone meetings since Friday, Feb. 12 to hear updates from gas pipelines, producers, local distribution companies, ERCOT, the PUC, and electric providers. Operators in the Permian reported the inability to produce gas because they did not have power, and we coordinated with ERCOT, the PUC, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management to get those issues addressed.”

Advertisement

Regulating oil and gas in Texas, which produces 40% of U.S. crude oil and 25% of its gas, is unlike any other state. Mitchell pointed out that most of the oil and gas produced in Texas is on state or private land, leaving little wiggle room for the federal government to regulate. That gives the RRC an outsize role in setting the state’s energy agenda.

Looking at the current makeup of the RRC, however, blurs the line between the regulatory body and the industry being regulated. Craddick owns land with her father that they lease to oil and gas producers, generating around $100,000 in 2019 alone, the Washington Post reported in February. Wright, who owns an oilfield waste services company that was embroiled in a series of lawsuits and environmental fines, said during his swearing-in hearing in January that fossil fuels are being “blamed for the climate crisis” and questioned the science behind how oil and gas flaring is harmful on an industry podcast. Christian, a Grammy-nominated former gospel singer, has authored op-eds denying climate science and hosted an energy summit in 2018 at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a denier think tank with deep connections to elected officials in the state. (“The idea that in 12 years the sun will have gotten so hot or the seas risen so much that large swaths of earth become uninhabitable is laughable nonsense deserving of ridicule,” Christian said in an emailed statement to Earther in response to a question on his views on climate science.)

Advertisement

Despite these conspiratorial views and deep industry ties, the trio at the RRC set the table for some of Texas’ blackout-induced woes, and whipped up an aggressive PR campaign saying fossil fuels weren’t the culprit despite lacking data to back it up.

“It’s certainly reasonable to suggest that (the RRC) should be looking at gathering more data and doing so on a more continuous basis,” said Adrian Shelley, the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen.

Advertisement

Shelley said that Texas regulators have a “trend for forgiving reporting obligations” when it comes to industry, especially during emergencies. Most recently, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality allowed polluters to take a break from reporting chemical spills due to covid-19. Public Citizen filed a lawsuit in the summer against the RRC after it used the pandemic as an excuse to suspend regulations for underground oil and gas storage.

Mitchell said, among other things, the RRC could have better prepared the energy system for a crisis, including mandating that producers weatherize their equipment, asking for them to register their equipment as critical infrastructure with ERCOT, improving communication with the PUC and ERCOT, and requiring real-time reporting on supply during the crisis.

Advertisement

Leaders at the PUC and ERCOT have been fired or resigned in the wake of the blackouts. Time will tell if the RRC will continue to escape scrutiny. A poll released by the University of Texas at the start of this month found that only 12% of respondents approved of the RRC’s response to the storm. That number is just north of the ERCOT approval rating of 8%, and the same percentage of approval rating as the PUC. If those numbers really reflect public opinion, there may be a different outcome at the ballot box when Christian’s seat on the commission comes up on the ballot in 2022.

DISCUSSION

So they’re a thoroughly captured regulator, effectively being run for the benefit of the industries they’re supposed to regulate.