The Signal recently spoke with Luke Warford, a senior Texas Democratic Party leader who is now running for Railroad Commissioner.
Warford is running on a progressive platform that includes securing the grid, reducing carbon emissions, protecting our air and water, and increasing accountability to everyday constituents rather than corporate donors.
Here’s what he had to say about rampant corruption on the Railroad Commission, the approaches Texas should take to adjust to climate change, what will make his campaign successful, and more.
The questions and answers in this interview are edited for clarity.
OK let’s launch in! So, how long have you been interested in energy policy and regulation? I doubt that when you were growing up you were thinking about wanting to be a Texas railroad commissioner.
I’ve cared about our energy system and where we’re getting our energy from for a long time. Coming of age during the Iraq War and learning about everything people were doing around the world to try to get oil, I think that just made it really clear how important energy production and the oil and gas industry is. I think like the other thing I would say is that I’m a 32-year old who cares about the environment and the world, and if you’re not worried about climate change I don’t think you’re really paying attention to what’s going on.
I think my specific interest in the TRC (Texas Railroad Commission) comes from the fact that I care about politics and having public servants that truly serve the people of Texas. Not everyone in the state knows about it, but the TRC is incredibly important both from an economic perspective as well as from an environmental perspective.
The thing that pushed over the edge to actually run for the seat was my experience and the experience of so many Texans during last February’s grid failure. For us, it got down to 30 degrees in my apartment without food or power, and so many Texans had it much worse than we did. Millions of people without power for days, billions of dollars in damages, hundreds of Texans’ lives lost. So, I just pulled back the layers after the storm and tried to understand what happened. It’s unconscionable that the Texas Railroad Commission could have done more to prevent the grid failure if they’d done their jobs, and that made me mad. It made me want to run.
Yeah, if you look at where the failings actually were coming from in terms of the weatherization, it was from power plants run by natural gas.
We knew that this was a risk from 2011 when the grid almost failed during another major winter storm. There were all of these recommendations saying our gas supply was not prepared for cold weather, and the Railroad Commission did nothing. Whether out of incompetence or corruption, it did nothing to prepare us. And in the 14 months since the storm, they have focused on trying to blame renewables and ERCOT but haven’t actually made any concrete improvements in terms of weatherization and the preparedness of our gas infrastructure for the next time it gets cold. So the result is Texans still living in fear of the power going out the next time the weather gets cold.
People have called the railroad Commission election “the most important climate election that nobody knows about.” How would you say the power of the TRC compares to that of ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission (PUC) in terms of how we can regulate our energy grid and protect Texans?
I think from the perspective of keeping the lights on, there is no more important office in Texas. I think it’s also critical that the Railroad Commission is on the ballot in November. The leadership for ERCOT and the PUC are appointed by the governor. The man I’m running against, Wayne Christian, is literally on the ballot, where Texans are going to have the opportunity to hold him accountable.
The reason the office has sometimes been called the most important climate election in the country is because of all of the emissions that come from the Texas oil and gas industry and essentially the Commission literally regulates the highest emitting industry in the highest emitting state in the country. I think getting our house in order in terms of lowering our emissions not only makes sense from a climate perspective but it also makes sense from an economic and business perspective. We see European buyers are going to be looking for natural gas from places outside of Russia, so they’re going to look towards Texas and our natural gas. That being said, they’re going to make buying decisions not based just on cost but also based on carbon-reduction ambitions. They will pay a premium for cleaner gas and right now Texas has natural gas with a reputation for not being that clean as compared to somewhere like Saudi Arabia.
In order to take advantage of the economic opportunity that exists, we need a regulator that is going to consistently hold bad actors accountable by enforcing the existing regulation in a credible way so buyers from other countries can be assured that Texas gas is not only affordable but clean as well.
I think the main thing that’s gonna be brought up in this campaign and what I’m sure you’re already seeing is a focus on how you will balance the economic interests of Texans versus the necessary measures we need to enforce in order to help our environment through measures like lowering emissions and decreasing underground water injections from fracking that cause earthquakes.
I just think it’s a false choice. On the emissions point, lower emissions is just good business, and that is particularly true with everything happening in Europe right now. That is a case that I have been making this entire campaign. It’s a case that I have made to hundreds of oil and gas executives that it is in the economic interest of Texans and Texas oil and gas producers to lower our emissions so that they can compete and Texas can maintain its energy leadership going forward. We spend a lot of time traveling around the state talking to folks who work in the gas industry that take a lot of pride in their work. They’ve made their careers in the oil and gas industry, but they understandably don’t want their neighbors to think that they’re poisoning their water or polluting their air.
What we’ve seen is a Railroad Commission that doesn’t enforce the existing regulations. Let’s for example look at the case that came out a couple months ago that Wayne Christian approved a waste disposal site on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of drinking water, despite the fact that his staff recommended against it. We see that time and time again it’s not about putting economic interests first, it’s about putting the crony interests of their campaign donors and these individual bad actors ahead of Texans at-large. I think that’s a problem, so I think we can both take advantage of the economic opportunity that exists and protect our air and keep our water safe and lower emissions. We shouldn’t have to choose.
And you’re not some novice with regards to economics. You went to the London School of Economics.
Republicans want to frame energy economics as these black and white issues because it benefits them, but that’s not the reality. People in the gas industry need to be able to provide for their families and put food on the table, but that can be consistent with the things Texans want like clean air and water and a habitable planet.
How deep do you think the conflict of interest goes between like the current commissioners and the fossil fuel industry?
I’ll talk about Wayne Christian in particular because that’s who I’m running against.
He is so far into the pocket of the oil and gas industry, not even not just at the industry level but of individual oil and gas executives who want him to make decisions on behalf of their companies that are not in the interest of Texans. 70% of his campaign contributions are from the industry he’s supposed to be regulating, and that is such a clear example of the fox guarding the hen house, but you also see it in these incredibly egregious individual cases like the case I was just talking about with this waste disposal permit near the Ogallala Aquifer north of Midland. The company that applied for that permit that Wayne Christian went against his staff to approve, that company was based 500 miles away from the site in Wayne Christian’s hometown. The company is called the High Roller Group and three days after the permit was approved gave a $100,000 campaign contribution to Wayne Christian. Like, no one thinks that’s OK. In no world is that OK. So I just think like folks across the state, not just Democrats but Republicans and independents too, would look at that and be like: “This person is working against our interests and is so clearly putting the interests of his donors and specific oil and gas executives ahead of the interests of the entire rest of the state.” I think you know that means Texans are frustrated with that and that that’s going to result in people voting him out of power in November.
Outside looking in, it’s almost like a cartoonish level of corruption that I think people across the political spectrum agree is bad. How are you trying to get that message out to people who maybe don’t know about the campaign who might just check the R at the ballot box in November without really knowing anything about what the office does? I’ve seen your launch video, which got a surprising amount of attention for a relatively unknown race. What is your approach to getting this message out that you know will really appeal to Texans across the political spectrum?
We know we have a popular message that is going to appeal to folks regardless of where they are on the political spectrum. I mean, we want to keep the lights on, we want to get the crooks out, and we want to maintain Texas energy leadership, right? That is super simple and straightforward. Communicating it to folks is really not that much more complex than meeting people where they are and going where Democrats don’t always necessarily go.
I’m the youngest statewide candidate in 30 years, so I’m a social media native. We have a way more active social media presence than a campaign like this might usually have because we know some voters in Texas are on social media and learn about the campaign that way. People come up to me all the time and say: “I saw your TikTok video, that’s how I learned about the race!” That’s so cool.
We‘re also going to events like the convention for TIPRO (Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association) and addressing oil and gas executives. That’s not necessarily a room full of folks who are going to be super welcoming to a Democrat all the time, but I think by showing up they realize there’s just a lot more common ground and areas of agreement than they necessarily realize. We’re just doing that in all sorts of different ways across the state depending on the community or the group of people we’re talking to, but we’re mainly focusing the thing we’re hearing over and over and over again: It’s unconscionable that we couldn’t keep the lights on in the energy capital of the world and made hundreds of Texans literally freeze to death. We are just going to talk about that again and again and again because people are ready to hold the current Texas Railroad Commission accountable for what they did.