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Julia Reihs / KUT

The Railroad Commission has nothing to do with railroads - and everything to do with our environment

Democrat Chrysta Castañeda is running to change its name, and the way it does business.

Texas politics can be confusing, and often, that’s because those in power want it to be. 

Many Texans are familiar with the statewide offices at the top of the ballot like Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, but most may not understand the importance of the Railroad Commissioner. It’s not because of apathy or ignorance on Texans’ part. It’s because the name is intentionally misleading

The Railroad Commission has absolutely nothing to do with railroads! It's actually our state's oil and gas regulatory commission - what other states call the Energy Commission - and has not dealt with railroads for decades. The state agency has kept the misleading name despite legislative efforts to reform it because Republicans and the industry they regulate care more about money than transparency or protecting our environment.

The name confuses voters, even those who may care about regulation of the oil and gas industry as well as the environmental impact. Add to that, it also makes it hard for candidates to campaign for this office on an environmental message. A slogan such as "I'm running for Railroad Commission to protect the environment" may be accurate, but to many Texans, it may not sound like it makes much sense. Unfortunately, the industry likes it that way and that’s why it’s been so hard to change the name.

We sat down with our endorsed Candidate for Railroad Commission Chrysta Castañeda to discuss her race and why the commission matters. Here’s what she had to say about the importance of the office in this election:

Castañeda, who’s also an engineer and energy attorney, said that this race will have crucial implications for how our state deals with the climate crisis as well as the COVID-19 crisis. We agree. This race has always been important, but it’s especially critical with COVID-19 changing our approach to energy in Texas and the way we think about the transition to clean energy.

The fact is, if you care about protecting air quality, water quality, and property rights over pipelines, this office should matter to you. 

The Railroad Commission is pivotal in the state’s contribution to climate change and, while it’s supposed to be the watchdog of the energy industry, the Republicans who sit on the commission have made it a lapdog.

One of Casteñeda’s main issues is stopping flaring, burning off gas in the middle of the night. This practice puts tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere and doesn’t yield any useful energy. In fact, the amount of natural gas that oil companies burn off in Texas as a waste product could power every home in the state. It damages our air quality and is just plain wasteful. The Texas Railroad Commission is supposed to be stewards of our natural resources and environment, but the current Republican members of the commission refuse to enforce regulations that could limit this pollution.

We need someone who’s not afraid to do the job this commission was intended to do. But in order to get there, we need to be transparent about what that job is. Since we can’t rely on our Republican lawmakers to accurately represent the duties of this office, we’ll have to rely on educating one another. 

Share this piece with your friends, family, and anyone you know who’s planning to vote in our upcoming elections. They deserve to know how important this office is to our state.