Safety is key in railroad panel bidIncumbent touts agency's record, while challenger shoots it down
By LISA SANDBERG
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Oct. 28, 2008
AUSTIN — Environmental safety is the issue dominating the race to fill one of three Texas Railroad Commission seats.
Incumbent Michael Williams, 55, a Republican from Arlington, insists that in the nine years he's been in office — overseeing an agency that regulates oil and natural gas, not trains — he's led efforts to plug abandoned wells, increase inspections of gas pipes, raise fines and reduce repair time.
"We've increased the requirements for leak inspection crews," Williams said.
But Mark Thompson, a Democrat and one of Williams' two opponents in the Nov. 4 election, disputed the commission's safety record, saying it has failed to properly inspect gas lines, a failure he said contributed to gas pipe explosions that have left five people dead since 2006.
Faulty compression couplings have been blamed for three fatal home explosions that have occurred in North Texas over the past two years. The commission required gas providers to remove and replace older couplings, but gave them two years to do so.
Thompson and others say two years was simply too long. "Why weren't these replaced right away?" Thompson demanded.
Influence of money
Williams acknowledged that faulty couplings are a significant concern nationally, but he contends that his agency is the first regulatory agency in the nation to require the replacement of older couplings.
"There are not a lot of crews that know how to do (the work)," Williams said. Two years, he added, "is not too long."
Thompson said Williams is too dependent on contributions from the companies he regulates to effectively regulate them.
"He's not looking after the people," said Thompson, 49, a therapist for the blind and a safety advocate who lives in Garland.
Williams raised $1.3 million from January 2007 through June 2008, of which 44 percent came from the energy companies he is sworn to regulate, according to an analysis by Texans for Public Justice, a group that tracks the influence of money in political campaigns.
Williams said he was not ashamed to accept money from energy interests and asserted it did not taint his decisions.
"I am proud that the people who know energy have enough confidence in my record and my vision to give freely to my campaign," he said.
Backlog of permits
Thompson took in $1,525 during the same period. He's raised nearly $11,000 since then, about half from the Texas Democratic Party and the rest largely from small donors.
The person who prevails in the race to fill the next six-year term will have some challenges to contend with. Gas drilling is soaring, yet the agency in charge of keeping all those pipelines and wells in good condition has fewer than 100 inspectors. There's a serious backlog of drilling permits, so bad that last month, the commission dipped into an environmental cleanup account to hire more people to reduce the backlog.
The opponents agree on at least two issues: The need for more inspectors and the need to rename the Texas Railroad Commission, which lost all oversight of the rails in 2005, to reflect its true mission.
The third candidate in the race is David Floyd, a Libertarian from Cedar Park, who does not appear to have a Web site. A telephone number couldn't be found for him.