McALLEN, RGV – Former state Rep. Lon Burnam, who has been endorsed by a number of Rio Grande Valley legislators, says he is running for a seat on the Railroad Commission to improve openness and transparency in government.
“I think it is important we have someone who is committed to openness and transparency in government. We have not seen this in the Railroad Commission in a long, long, time. I think it is time to end one party rule in this state and get somebody in there who is committed to representing every Texan. Everybody should have a place at the table and I am particularly concerned about the consumers and the environment.”
Burnam, who used to represent parts of Fort Worth in the Texas House of Representatives, has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, other labor organizations and Valley lawmakers such as Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, and Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya. He is running for an open seat and has two Democratic Party opponents in Tuesday’s primary.
Burnam gave a wide-ranging interview to the Rio Grande Guardian on a recent visit to the Valley. He said the Railroad Commission, which administers the oil and gas industry not the railroads, is one of the most important agencies in state government.
“It is a very important agency, which is why its leaders are elected not appointed. People should recognize that the three commissioners on the Railroad Commission – there is one on the ballot every two years – have a lot to say and do about the economic well-being of Texas. Specifically, because they are supposed to regulate oil and gas,” Burnam said.
“In the past they have done things to slow down and prevent the oil bust we are in right now. They abandoned those responsibilities a long time ago, at the behest of the industry. And so now, there is a huge bust. This rollercoaster economy that Texas has had for 80 years, based on the boom and bust of the oil and gas industry, should be moderated and it can be moderated.”
Boom and Bust
Burnam was asked how can the oil and gas industry’s boom and bust cycles be “moderated.” He replied: “Years ago they used to limit how much production there could be. Instead of doing that, limiting the production, what they said in the Eagle Ford Shale was Katy bar the door, anything goes. Because there was not the infrastructure to support this 21st Century gold rush, there was a whole lot of natural gas wasted. There are two things wrong with that. One, when you are flaring all that gas off, much of it was done illegally. You are burning hydrocarbons that are not being used, which means you are polluting the air in San Antonio. For four or five years they were bumping up against EPA non-attainment during this rush period, because of all the flaring off. You are polluting the air and, secondly, you are not collecting the taxes on it.”
Burnam’s campaign literature includes stickers with the word Railroad scratched and replaced with the word Energy. Burnam would like to see the agency change its name.
“It should be called the Energy Commission and it should be about energy production across the board. Right now it regulates oil and gas, and coal and uranium mining. It should be promoting solar and wind energy, particularly here in South Texas. There is so much economic development opportunity here that is being missed because nobody is taking a leadership role in it. And the fact of the matter is, you are not going to see it in this region without state help because everything is so diffuse here, there are so many different communities here. We need someone to take a leadership role and talk about energy development in South Texas.”
Comprehensive Energy Plan
Another part of Burnam’s platform is support for a national energy policy. Here is his rationale:
“We have heard for years, particularly since 9-11, about the need for energy independence. But, nobody is doing it. At the national level, under Bill Clinton there were a lot of initiatives towards developing a national energy policy. That was back before 9-11. In fact, the former mayor of Houston, Bill White was in charge of that. That is one of the reasons why Bill White has endorsed me, because I am the only one who is talking about developing an energy plan that is comprehensive, that engages all possibilities for economic development.”
Burnam said that on his visits to South Texas he is hearing a lot about the transportation of electricity.
“We need to get it to the right places at the right time. We have dealt with that in West Texas. There was such a big, big, expansion of wind energy in West Texas that they had to develop the lines and had to work with the state agency to get the electricity to where the people are. As big as the Valley is, the Valley should be producing so much electricity that its money stays here in the community.”
Protecting the Rights of Landowners
Burnam said it might surprise some to know that much of his support is coming from landowners affected by oil and gas extraction.
“Many of my supporters are landowners in the Eagle Ford Shale and they are really angry with the Railroad Commission. There is a lot of anger out there, including in communities that generally think of themselves as Republican. They are angry and frustrated with the Railroad Commission. You have ranchland that has been in the family for decades and it has been ruined because of inadequate regulation,” Burnam said.
“In addition to flaring there are allegations of stealing and cheating going on. People say they are not getting paid royalties from natural gas leases. How do we know this? In the Barnet Shale in North Texas, every entity that is big enough has sued Chesapeake Energy. Chesapeake is one of the worst players. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the City of Fort Worth, multiple other municipalities and school districts have sued. And, this is where you know this is really in play – the Bass family has sued Chesapeake.”
Burnam said when there is under-reporting of gas production the landowners lose out on royalties and the State of Texas loses out on severance taxes. “We need somebody who is going to get up and stand up for the rights of Texans.”
Liquefied Natural Gas
One of the top energy issues in South Texas is the possibility of liquefied natural gas export terminals being constructed at the Port of Brownsville. Burnam said he would like to learn more about this issue before commenting on it. “I have not studied it closely enough. I understand and respect some of the concerns I have heard but I am really not qualified to speak to it. I have been made aware, frankly since the turn of the year, of the issue as I have visited the Valley.”
Mexico’s Energy Reforms
Asked about the importance of Mexico’s energy reforms, Burnam said: “I have been down here in my capacity as a legislator and heard about it at some of the legislative hearings. There is a great deal of potential in Mexico. There is a great deal of potential for economic development here in the Valley. It needs to be done in the right way. In the case of Mexico, we know during the big oil boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, the national government in Mexico did not do it the right way and we have not seen any evidence so far that it is going to be done the right way this time. We have a responsibility to develop our energy future. Energy knows no boundaries.”
Asked if he had any other comment for potential voters, Burnam said: “I think it is important for people to know it is not just enough to turn out and vote in one primary or another on March 1. We are not just selecting a nominee for president. There are a whole lot of down ballot issues here in the Valley. I know I have an uphill battle statewide. Here in the Valley people have to realize that if you do not vote March 1 you have wasted your right.”