Jim Wright, Texas’s newest addition to the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), learned the value of hard work growing up on a working ranch — one with its own mining business to boot — near the tiny settlement of Bluntzer, Texas. The lessons he learned at a young age served him well during 2020 when he embarked on his first-ever campaign for a seat on the RRC. It started with a tough primary race against incumbent Commissioner Ryan Sitton. After a surprising primary win, he took on Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, a Dallas attorney whose campaign received $2.5 million from billionaire New Yorker Mike Bloomberg during the race’s closing weeks.
Bloomberg, it seems, had become convinced by the speculative and sometimes hopeful reporting by the Texas and national news media that this election would be the one where Texas flipped to blue. However, Texas voters failed to cooperate. Despite all of the out-of-state money coming into his opponent’s campaign coffers, Wright won his race against Castaneda by about 10% of the vote, roughly the same margin by which U.S. Senator John Cornyn was re-elected in his own race. With the Republican Party winning every statewide race, as it has in every election since 1994, and with the balance of power unchanged in the state legislature and the Texas congressional delegation, Texas remains as red as ever, at least for the coming two years.
Wright’s willingness to get his hands dirty to solve difficult problems will also serve him well in his new job at the RRC. The Commission has been dealing with the ongoing issue of natural-gas flaring for the past few years, especially in the Permian Basin in West Texas, where the issue has gained national attention. Regulation of hydraulic fracturing has been a matter of national and even global controversy for a dozen years now, and the RRC still finds itself the target of frequent criticism from the environmental left despite its strong enforcement efforts and regulatory improvements in that area.
Tensions have also risen in the midstream part of the business in recent years. Disputes over permitting and the exercise of eminent domain powers by pipeline companies have increased as thousands of miles of new pipeline infrastructure have been built across the state. Eminent domain has become a matter of increasing tension between the industry and landowners for a generation now, and representatives of all stakeholders have tried in vain to reach an acceptable compromise in every legislative session since 2009.
All of these issues and more will become focal points of RRC activity during Wright’s first year in office.
Then there’s the budget. As the Texas legislature convenes in mid-January for its biennial 140-day session, it will face a significant revenue shortfall for both the past two-year cycle and the next budget cycle due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. As tough as the overall state budget picture shapes up to be, the RRC has been hit doubly-hard given that its budget is funded almost entirely from fees levied on the oil and gas industry in the state.
It is no secret that 2020 was one of the most trying years the oil business has ever faced, with a collapse in oil prices initially caused by the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and exacerbated by the demand-killing impacts of the pandemic. The resulting collapse in prices led to an 80% decline in the domestic rig count and similar drops in the number of permits for drilling, frac jobs, workovers and other oilfield activities from which the Commission collects fees.
While things certainly picked up in the fourth quarter of the year, the level of Texas oilfield activity remains a fraction of what it was just a year ago. Wright and his fellow Commissioners, Christi Craddick and Wayne Christian, will have to work with legislators and the industry itself to find ways to arrive at a healthy budget to keep the gears at the RRC turning for the next biennium.
Make no mistake about it, the maintenance of a properly funded and staffed Railroad Commission is in the best interests of all concerned, especially the industry itself. The history of the oil and gas business in Texas clearly demonstrates that the industry thrives during times when the Commission is diligently and proactively executing its responsibilities. Regulatory stability allows landowners, environmentalists and the industry to plan ahead, ensuring we are able to benefit from the plethora of natural resources in our state.
It’s safe to say that there will be no shortage of work as Wright embarks on his new role as a statewide elected official. Our interview with him clearly demonstrates he is ready to hit the ground running.
A Family with an Independent Streak
“If you head south on Hwy 666, you’ll run into Hwy 624, which takes you back into Corpus Christi. Right there at that corner is an old school building, and that is Bluntzer,” Wright told us when we sat down to interview him in early December. “I grew up about a mile from that school building. From there, I lived in Robstown for a while, then moved to Orange Grove. That’s pretty much where I’ve been ever since.”
Bluntzer is not big enough to be an incorporated city or even officially a town. It is instead a community, like so many others in the state, made up mainly of farms and ranches grouped close to one another.
Wright grew up on one of the working ranches in the community that was home to a rodeo arena and his immediate and extended families. “About a mile away from Bluntzer was where all my cousins grew up on the ranch there,” he told us. “Everyone had their little houses, and if you opened the back door to our house, you’d actually almost hit the corner of the local rodeo arena. So, all of my brothers and sisters, my cousins, we all rodeoed in some form or fashion. That’s just what I grew up doing.”
Ultimately, the rodeo became a long-term passion for young Jim Wright, one that he continued to pursue well into his adult years. He became a member of the Professional Cowboy Rodeo Association (PCRA) and rode in events all over the country for more than 20 years. “I think the first bull I ever climbed on was when I was nine years old. My grandfather raised the largest herd of longhorns in Texas. He had that for a number of years,” Wright said. “I remember my uncle really getting angry with me because I’d go out and gather the longhorn bulls so I could practice on them. He didn’t much like that, but he’d let me do it.”
Like so many parents of young rodeo enthusiasts, Wright’s parents were not especially enthralled with the sight of their son being tossed around by thousand-pound bulls on a regular basis and tried to steer him over to the less dangerous events in the sport. “My mom and dad wanted me to be a roper, not a bull rider,” Wright said with a chuckle. “Dad even bought a bunch of steers and sent them to Raymondville and sent me down there for a summer to rope them because they needed another set of hands there.”
As the story goes, that summer, there was a screwworm epidemic. Wright and five or six others spent the summer roping steers to doctor screwworms. “I told Dad after that summer that I never wanted to see another rope in my life. I said ‘I’ll stick to bull riding; it’s safer.’”
Wright stuck with riding bulls, and he continued on the pro rodeo circuit well into his 30s. “I did high school rodeo, then got out of high school and went to a lot of open rodeos and eventually got my PCRA permit card. This was back in the days when for pro rodeo, you had to win $2,500 a year to keep your card, and there were some years back then when it was really hard to do that.
“A good year for me would be making $10,000 in the summer, and I thought I was rich. But it cost every bit of that to go to those rodeos. I finally quit one night in Pennsylvania in 1996. Got on a bull there and got hooked pretty good and dislocated my knee, and I thought, ‘You know, I’m too old for this.’ I was up there with Lloyd, a guy rodeoing with me at that time, and I said to Lloyd, ‘Take me to Newark, and I’m getting on a plane, and I’m going home, and I hope I never see another bull again in my life.’”
Of course, being a rancher, Wright did continue seeing bulls, even though he had quit riding them. “I bought a bunch of bulls and started raising bucking bulls and did that for a long time,” he said. “We went to a lot of PRC rodeos with them and even made it to the national finals with a few.” Wright remembered back to a day when his wife, Sherry, was grinding feed and asked him why they were still raising those bulls since it was a lot of work, and they weren’t making any money. He said, “I thought that was a really good question,” and shortly after that, each time he would return home from a trip, they would have fewer and fewer bulls because she was selling them. “It was a family business,” he said, “and she knew when it was time to move on.”
Wright is the proud father of five children, and we asked if any of them had also taken an interest in rodeo or ranching. As is the case with most ranching families, the answer is that a few have, and a few have decided to pursue other interests.
“My oldest son actually runs a ranch now in Camp Wood,” Wright told us. “I really admire him. He used to tell me all the time, ‘You know, Dad, you’ve got a business; you’ve got these bulls; you’re into everything. Every day you wake up, and you’re worried about something. I hardly ever see a smile on your face. But you know what, I may not make a bunch of money, but I love being around cows and horses, and I wake up with a smile on my face every day.’
“To this day, every time I see him, I smile. He’s like, ‘It’s good to see you smiling now.’ So yeah, he didn’t chase all the things I did. He loves bulls; he loves horses; he loves cattle. That’s what he wants to do. He rode for a long time, too. Kind of followed my footsteps in that regard, got his card and rode. The only thing about him is he broke more bones than I did.”
That oldest son, Luke, also preaches at various cowboy churches in the area where he lives. “He found Christ and got started in a lot of the cowboy churches. He knows a lot of the preachers in the cowboy churches, and he’ll go and step in for them when they’re sick or on vacation. Or he might just show up and give a testimony. He still attends rodeos and preaches at those events too.”
Wright said his other kids have gone into their own paths in life, away from ranching and rodeoing. “My oldest step-daughter runs a bed and breakfast in South Texas. Our other daughter works for Ernst and Young and runs her own program team for them. My stepson works for CPS in San Antonio and loves what he does there.
“Then our youngest is in college. He wants to be an electrical engineer. I wanted him to play football because he filled out. He’s now 6’4” and 250 lbs. I probably could’ve talked him into riding bulls, but he’s too big for that. I told him maybe he could try steer dogging. And he said, ‘Nah, I’ll just stick to what I do.’”
Sounds like a trait that runs in the family.
A Pressing Need for Guidance and Clarity
When we asked what could possibly lead someone with such a great family and happy life in a rural part of Texas to invest the time, energy and money to run for Texas Railroad Commissioner, Wright didn’t have to give it a lot of thought — his answer was direct and immediate: He wants to clarify the interpretation of the rules.
“I started my company (a diverse set of businesses that offer oilfield services ranging from consulting and transportation to industrial recycling) after working at a hazardous waste landfill in 1991,” he said. “We started out doing mainly emergency response for the utility industry. However, since the discovery of shale, the oil field just bloomed and blossomed, and naturally, our revenues tracked that. So, we were dealing less with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and more with the RRC. I realized that the problems I encountered with the RRC were related to unclear interpretations of a rule or how the particular person we were dealing with applied those rules. It was difficult. When you read the code of federal regulations, or you read rules that are at the commission or rules in general that are written by an attorney, it’s like reading the Bible. Different people interpret that type of language differently.”
“One thing I applaud TCEQ on in working with them for all these years is the lack of ambiguity because you could always refer to a guidance document, and that would give you the clear definition in layman’s terms of what that rule meant and how it was to be applied, evenly and fairly across the board. Working with the Railroad Commission, you soon find that there are no guidance documents.”
In 2018, Wright, in discussions with several customers, came up with an idea of forming up a task force to work with Commission staff to develop a set of guidance documents. Their goal was to help standardize the interpretation and applications of some of the more complex rules. He also approached one of the Commissioners to see if they would be willing to help facilitate the effort.
“I asked the Commissioner if they had ever considered having someone come in and help write guidance documents. The answer was essentially, ‘No, but if you’ve got people who want to volunteer, I’m happy to do what I can to help give you access to staff, and we’ll go from there.’ And the Commissioner did.”
But the new task force’s first call with Commission staff was with an employee in the IT department, and it did not go well.
“I remember that day as clearly as yesterday,” Wright said with a laugh. “We were actually all sitting around a conference room table, and when we hung up with the staff member we were talking to, we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Does anybody think the tail is wagging the dog here?’ I apologized because it was clear we weren’t going to get very far with the staff. I said, ‘You know guys, I’m sorry that I wasted y’all’s time. I don’t know how else to get this accomplished.’ Then two or three of them looked at me and said, ‘Well, we do. Why don’t you run for Railroad Commissioner?’
“That was July of 2019, and I went home and considered it. Then on December 6th, three days before the deadline to register to run, I was getting ready to go to Lake Charles with my wife for our anniversary. We got on the airplane, and I asked her, ‘Do you mind if I stop in Austin?’ That’s when I made my mind up to do it. I said, ‘Do you mind if I stop in Austin and register to run for Railroad Commissioner?’ She looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’ve always been a nut, but I really know you’re a nut now.’ But then she said, ‘Sure. Let’s stop in Austin. Go do it.’”
Starting a New Job with an Action Plan
Wright is not just coming into his new role with a blank slate. During the campaign, he developed a set of key policy priorities, kept his guidance-documents task force up and running and created another working task force focused on the crucial issue of emissions and natural-gas flaring in the state.
The flaring of large volumes of natural gas has been a chronic, ongoing issue that has negatively impacted the industry’s reputation in every new shale play since the initial development of the Barnett Shale in North Texas more than 20 years ago. Flaring mainly occurs in wells classified as oil wells, but which also produce significant volumes of associated gas. Producers and royalty owners want to be able to produce and sell the oil production, in many cases, before the wells can be hooked up to a natural-gas pipeline.
For many years, producers facing this situation around the country were allowed to simply vent the natural gas into the atmosphere. But the elevated focus on climate and the environment beginning in the 1960s brought with it the realization that this was bad policy. Most states, including Texas, have long required the gas to be flared at the wellhead rather than just vented into the atmosphere, and also sets a time limit on how long a producer is able to do this before the well must be hooked up to a sales line. This avoids methane pollution but still results in the emission of trace amounts of other pollutants.
Prolonged flaring of large volumes of gas also results in a tremendous waste of one of the state’s most precious natural resources, an aspect of the issue that Wright said he considers to be key.
“I look at flaring as a waste of our natural resources,” he told us. “I think that certainly, man is having an impact on our atmosphere, but I don’t think flaring is the only cause, which is what you kind of read in the papers today.” Wright said that after hearing from many Texans about the issue across the campaign trail, he decided to create a task force to look at the issue. His task force is made up of individuals from midstream companies, producers and other stakeholders.
“Flaring is such a complicated issue, to be honest with you,” Wright said. “It isn’t just as simple as just doing away with flaring.” He said the task force is looking at how it can minimize the flaring of natural gas and also educating people on the facts about flaring.
While guidance documents and flaring are key issues for Wright, they are not the only ones he will be focused on when he hits the ground running in January. In fact, he’s already up to four task forces he wants to quickly form to address issues.
“As of right now, we’ve got a total of four task forces that we are working on creating,” he told us when we talked in early December. In addition to his task forces to address guidance documents and flaring, Wright also plans to create groups of experts to address public education about the industry and one to work on market sustainability.
Wright said that all of the task forces feed into one another, and each plays a role in helping him achieve the two promises he set out to fulfill as Commissioner. “I made two promises on the campaign to streamline enforcement (governance documents) and increase transparency (education) at the commission with my ultimate goal of creating a sustainable and dependable lifestyle for all Texans supported by our state’s abundant natural resources,” he said.
“If I can accomplish this goal, I will feel like I have done a lot for Texas in my six-year term. It’s clear by the outcome of the election that this resonated with Texans, and that’s what I’ve come to Austin to do,” he said.
The Importance of Border Security
Wright also talked a lot about the importance of border security during his campaign. His focus on this issue is a natural one, given where he grew up, but also relates to a tragic incident in which his wife was involved in 2017.
“I’m passionate about border security. And I really said this during my campaign. It is no secret that much of the trafficking of human beings, drugs and other illicit activities that come across the border must traverse through oil and gas well sites and other installations and that oil sites can be used as shelter by those in the country illegally. Employees working on leases along or near the border often see the signs of such activities and even come into direct contact with the people engaged in them. Wright sees this as an opportunity and responsibility for the industry to play a larger role in addressing the problem.
“When we talk about border security, I think that the oil and gas industry, especially in South Texas, needs to do a better job of working with our border patrol to recognize the illegal activity that’s going on there. We need to have a way to report it and get these incidents responded to immediately. That’s my focus when I talk about border security. I want to try to work with border patrol to start to educate our folks out in the industry so that when they see these things happen, they have a safe way to report it so that it’s dealt with.”
We asked Wright how he expects border policy to change in a new Joe Biden administration. His response was direct and to the point. “Everyone knows what’s going to happen there,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of immunity, and I think we’re going to go backwards from what has been accomplished in the last four years. But I can tell you, in experiencing what I’ve experienced in my family, I’m going to continue to fight for that border protection. I’m going to do everything that this office allows to make sure we have a secure border in Texas.”
The new president may not care about what happens in South Texas, but the new member of the Railroad Commission definitely does. He and generations of his family have grown up and worked and rodeoed and raised cattle and lived their lives there. He built businesses that thrived because of the innovation used to extract oil and natural gas from shale formations. He cares deeply about the land, so much so that he became an expert in waste management and land restoration. It’s those reasons and more that help explain why he chose “wrightfortexas.com” as his campaign website URL.
For Jim Wright, that’s not just an address; it’s a way of life.
About the author: David Blackmon is the Editor of SHALE Oil & Gas Business Magazine. He previously spent 37 years in the oil and natural gas industry in a variety of roles — the last 22 years engaging in public policy issues at the state and national levels. Contact David Blackmon at [email protected].