Upset: Incumbent Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton Ousted by Newcomer

A South Texas businessman and political newcomer, Wright has criticized commissioners for accepting donations from the same industry they regulate.

Ousted Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.
Ousted Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton. Jen Reel

A South Texas businessman and political newcomer, Wright has criticized commissioners for accepting donations from the same industry they regulate.

Ousted Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.
Ousted Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton. Jen Reel

In a startling upset, first-time candidate Jim Wright defeated incumbent Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton in last night’s Republican primary.

Sitton conceded via tweet to Wright (not to be confused with the former U.S. House speaker with the same name who died in 2015). Wright, who owns an oilfield waste services company in South Texas, mounted a self-proclaimed “grassroots” effort. He raised less than $13,000—peanuts compared to Sitton’s $2.2-million war chest—but still earned 56 percent of the vote.

Wright’s win will likely shift the makeup of the three-member board that regulates oil and gas for the state. Commissioners serve six-year terms.

Sitton, who has served on the board since 2014, had garnered the support of top leaders like U.S. Senator John Cornyn, Governor Greg Abbott, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. But he drew criticism for accepting campaign contributions from the same industry he regulates, his reluctance to acknowledge seismic activity in wastewater disposal wells, and denying the environmental effects of natural gas drilling.

Wright has argued that commissioners should recuse themselves from any issue that is entangled in campaign contributions. Railroad commissioners have long been cozy with the oil and gas industry, and Sitton accepted almost $60,000 in donations from both the Chevron Employees Political Action Committee and the chief executive of Energy Transfer Partners. 

“This win tonight means that Texans believe in integrity, leadership and innovation,” said Wright in a Facebook post after final election results were tallied. “I look forward to bringing our message to all Texans and working with Wayne Christian and Christi Craddick in January 2021 to keep our state the top leader in natural resource production in the country.”

Although Wright is likely to win the seat, he must first face a Democratic challenger. That’ll be either Chrysta Castañeda or Roberto R. “Beto” Alonzo, who will compete in a runoff on May 26. The last Democrat to serve on the agency’s board was Mary Scott Nabers, whose term ended in 1994. 

Castañeda, an engineer and attorney in Dallas, has over three decades of experience in the oil and gas industry. According to the League of Women Voters, her campaign promises to update pipeline regulations, enforce laws prohibiting flaring, reduce methane emissions, and use drone equipment to detect leaks of methane gas emissions.  

Alonzo, an attorney and former state representative from Dallas, has promised to pass laws that would require more transparent pipeline permits, strengthen eminent domain protections, and more closely monitor fracking in the state.

This story has been updated. 

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DaLyah Jones is a staff writer for Texas Observer covering environment. She’s a former general assignment reporter and All Things Considered producer for Austin’s NPR Station, KUT 90.5, where she focused on rural and suburban stories outside of the Capital’s urban core.


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