Written By Kate Kahle, Assistant Editor
While the Texas Department of Health and Safety reported 246 deaths related to winter storm Uri, other sources calculate over 700 deaths. The grid went down during the storm because of the lack of weatherization of the components of the energy system. Elected officials such as the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Texas, the Texas House of Representatives, the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC), and the Energy Regulation Council of Texas (ERCOT), could have put regulations in place that would have prevented the outages that led to the storm’s tragic outcome.
While the storm was a disaster for most Texans, the circumstances created by the storm allowed energy companies to make record profits. The industry made about $11.1 billion in profits during the five-day storm. Energy Transfer, a single midstream energy company headquartered in Dallas, posted its largest quarterly profit in Q1 of 2021, $2.4 billion of which came only from the five days of winter storm Uri. $17 million of this is attributable to ERCOT’s decision to allow energy companies to raise prices as they saw fit during the storm due to high demand and low availability of energy resources.
On June 8, 2021, Governor Greg Abbot signed Texas Senate Bill 3 into law. Senate Bill 3 requires the weatherization of electricity generators and transmission lines. Governor Abbot stated that inspections to ensure these methods were completed would be conducted by the TRC and ERCOT, and fines would total up to $1 million. The bill only requires natural gas transporters to weatherize if it is deemed “critical” by regulators, and fails to include any provision for improving consumer infrastructure. At the bill signing ceremony, the Governor stated that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.” In the wake of that bill signing, Energy Transfer’s CEO, Kelcy Warren, donated $1 million to Governor Greg Abbot’s campaign. This donation was four times greater than his average annual donations to Governor Abbot in recent years, and his largest-ever campaign donation to a state politician.
One of the agencies responsible for enforcing the requirements put in place by SB3 is the Texas Railroad Commission. The TRC is one of the state’s most important regulatory agencies. Despite its name, the TRC is in charge of regulating the oil and gas industry. This includes operations like permitting new wells and pipelines, safely retiring wells that are no longer used, and overseeing coal and uranium mining practices, as well as overseeing the weatherization requirements set out in Senate Bill 3. There is no rule barring Texas Railroad Commissioners from having business interests in the energy industry. 70% of current commissioners’ campaign contributions come from the oil and gas industry.
Commissioner Christi Craddick, whose seat will be up for re-election in 2024, owns land in West Texas that generated $100,000 from ExxonMobil and Pioneer Natural Resources in 2019. Commissioner Craddick also owns between $17,520 and $35,874 in stock from DCP Midstream, a Denver-based pipeline company. DCP Midstream also donated $22,500 to Commissioner Craddick’s campaign. When DCP Midstream came before the TRC for adjudication involving a leak, Commissioner Craddick did not recuse herself, and instead cast the deciding vote in favor of DCP Midstream.
The Current Chair of the Commission, Wayne Christian, is up for re-election in November. In February 2022 Commissioner Christian approved High Roller Group’s application to build an 89-acre waste dumping site in West Texas. Locals fought against the project, believing that waste from the site could pollute the already diminished Ogallala Aquifer, their source of drinking water. After Christian approved High Roller Group’s proposal, Christian received a $100,000 campaign donation from High Roller Group. In response to backlash from opponents and constituents, Christian stated “I have never allowed a political contribution to influence my decisions in elected office.” At 72, Commissioner Christian has had a long career. He earned a B.B.A. in General Business from Stephen F. Austin University in 1973. After graduating, he pursued a career in Christian music as a member of the Mercy River Boys, who were finalists for a Grammy award in 1979. In 1987, Christian started his own financial advising business, Wayne Christian Financial Services, where he still works. Many of the donations to Christian’s campaign have come from oil and gas entities.
His challenger this November, 32-year-old Luke Warford earned his bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Delaware in 2011, and his master’s degree in development management from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2012. Warford has worked in politics since 2012 but has spent most of his career in the private sector. Though Warford is a Democrat, Republican politicians have endorsed him as “pragmatic and pro-business.” Donations to Warford’s campaign all come from individuals acting in an individual capacity.
Warford has invited Commissioner Christian to engage in a political debate with him. Commissioner Christian has not responded to the invitation.