As I wrote in a previous post, had Williams not resigned as chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, he would be removed as chairman today by the other two commissioners, Elizabeth Ames Jones and David Porter. And so it came to pass. This is why Williams resigned from the commission, effective April 2.
Williams, who has announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison, was not buddy-buddy with his fellow commissioners. He had a tendency to speak for the other two commissioners without checking with them. One of the big sticking points was the Sunset Commission’s recommendation to reduce the number of commissioners, from three elected commissioners to one. Williams pushed for the one-commissioner system before the Sunset Commission, which ultimately voted for it by 8 to 4. Williams favors the Sunset recommendation and has been rumored to be interested in an appointment by Rick Perry as the single commissioner/energy czar if the Sunset recommendation goes through. There is considerable opposition from legislators to giving the governor more appointments, as well as concern that under the one-commissioner system, the RRC staff would turn out to be political appointees as well. Ames Jones and Porter strongly opposed the single commissioner, arguing, with good reason, that if there is just one commissioner, the big energy companies will end up owning that person.
Unlike Williams, Ames Jones intends to remain on the commission while running for the Senate. That leave Porter as the sole commissioner until Governor Perry appointed replacements. However, if the one-commissioner system wins approval, as it is on track to do, the commission will have to be abolished and re-created in its new form. This would leave Porter out in the cold, as he was just elected in November 2010 and his job would vanish after nine months.
An RRC staffer described Williams to me as “very predictable–he’s favorable to the [natural gas] pipelines.” He paid little attention to small producers. Ames Jones and Porter were more open to the little guys of the industry.
The bad blood among the threesome goes back to when Victor Carrillo was chairman. Traditionally, the chairmanship rotates among the three members and the member up for reelection is voted in as chairman. Ames Jones was next-in-line, but Carrillo made Williams chairman, supposedly because Williams would be the strongest advocate for the collective viewpoint of the commissioners.
It didn’t turn out that way. The agency was going through Sunset, and the recommendation of the Sunset Commission was to have five elected commissioners (later reduced to one). Ames Jones and Porter believe that a single-commissioner system does not serve the public. During today’s “conference,” as RRC meetings are called, Porter spoke of the need for “three divergent viewpoints.” The commission, he said, currently has the benefit of a single-head system, through its executive director and staff, who know the history of the agency and have expertise in the field of oil and gas, as well as a quasi-judicial system, which consists of the three commissioners. If you go to a single commissioner, he said, there are no checks and balances. Porter and Ames Jones joined in a letter to be sent to the Sunset Commission, the governor, and the Legislature, supporting the three-commissioner status quo and Ames Jones asked if her fellow commissioners would sign it. Williams said, “I intend to vote no. The Sunset Commission has already addressed these issues.”
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I don’t trust the one-commissioner system. Inevitably, the candidates for that office are going to be showered with money by the oil and gas interests, and the bigger the interests (i.e., Exxon), the heavier the showering. The Railroad Commission does not, over its eight decades of existence, have a distinguished record of protecting the public. It was created to protect the price of oil and did so until the Arab oil embargo of the early seventies. I don’t care if there is one commissioner or ten commissioners. The commissioner is going to be a captive of the industry. The only thing good about an elected commissioner is that the officeholder will be independent of the governor’s office, which is a departure from the norm these days. I remember the commission’s ads in the old Texas Almanacs, which proudly announced that the commission has been serving the industry since the 1930s. No mention of serving the public.
Despite the denials of Williams’ political consultant that Williams is interested in the energy-czar appointment, I believe that Williams will proceed on a dual track of running for the Senate and reminding Perry of his interest in being the single commissioner. Just in case the Senate race doesn’t work out.
[This piece has been slightly edited to correct the mispunctuation of Ms. Ames Jones name and to make a correction that she is not stepping down to run for the Senate.]