The citizen advocate

Railroad Commission candidate Mark Thompson went home with the largest percentage of the vote in the March 4 Democratic primary, damn near avoiding the April 8 runoff with three-time contender Dale Henry, and defeating former San Antonio City Councilman Art Hall, who had been endorsed by the state’s major newspapers as well as noted political names. One Henry camp observer suggested that Thompson benefited from ballot placement in a record-turnout primary. But as Thompson was quick to point out to the Current, he beat one or both of his opponents in some populous counties where his name appeared second or third. Although the press (our beet-faced selves included) have been quick to delimit Thompson as an advocate for the blind who has some Austin police experience, the tenacious activist has been dogging the RRC since the fatal 2006 Wylie natural-gas explosion focused public attention on a coupling safety issue the commission has been accused of trying to cover up.

Tell me about those gas explosions, how you got involved in them.

I’d heard about them before but I thought maybe it was because of negligence or something like that on the people’s part — and when I heard about the one in Wylie, which is not too far from Garland, I said, well, how can that happen? So I asked a few questions because I have a sister that’s blind and she also stays in Garland, and I thought, hey, if my sister’s blind, walking around, next thing is — but anyway, what I did is, I went ahead and started asking the Railroad Commission, and basically I was stonewalled. Somebody would send me to one office, and then they’d send me back to the same person I just talked to, who’d send me back to that same office again. It was just going back and forth, and I did this for a few days, and finally someone says, hey, do you want to file an open-records act? It was almost like they were telling me, “We’re probably tired of this, too,” the day-to-day, rank-and-file person, and they said, you want to file an open-records act. And I go, yeah, yeah, and basically I think they were trying to lead me, the regular people, to find out about these things.

So the text on your website is text you wrote yourself about these issues.

Yes. Well, the thing is, what I do, I look at the different things, and I’m writing everything down I can, putting things down, and I mean I was trying to find out stuff. A lot of times in Hamilton, I go up to the Dallas area, and I go through where they’re digging all the oil wells and everything, I mean the gas wells, and they’re drilling for them, and there’s so many trucks and everything, and I try to figure out, what is all this? It can’t just be for gas. And then I realize it’s for the saltwater injection, and then I’m thinking about, wow, that’s a lot of pollution, what’s that about? I was amazed by that, when I found out they just inject it back into the ground. Wow, isn’t there a better way? Can’t we figure out something that is a little better for the environment? I can’t say I have the answers to all that, but it can’t be considered just like regular water.

Art Hall talked about wanting to use the rate-approval process to encourage energy companies to pursue energy efficiency, for instance. Is that something you think it’s appropriate for the Railroad Commission to do?

I don’t know if we can, actually; I think that might have to go through some other channels, to go ahead and encourage or enforce certain groups for certain rates. We can set our rates, and everything, if it’s, you know, we have the appellate part of the rates ...

You have original jurisdiction over non-municipal ...

Right, and we have appellate over even the municipal if there’s not an agreement. But the thing is, what I’ve been told is the Railroad Commission a lot of times will not even side with their own people when it comes to rates, and what we need to do is just keep our rates down as much as possible. I want to be reasonable to the producers, too, that they make a reasonable profit, but the thing is, we’ve got to keep things down where the people — they’re being squeezed enough as it is.

But you don’t know that you would use that part in the conversation with the utilities to try to get some other concessions from them on, say, an energy-efficiency program, that sort of thing?

I’d have to really check that out, because I would hate to do something like that without really investigating if we really have the power to do that.

Does somebody need to have worked in the industry or have that kind of experience to be an effective railroad commissioner?

I don’t think so. Look what happened when they had the explosions in Wylie and Cleveland. What’d `Dale Henry` do? He didn’t do anything, and he had run before. He was quiet about that. Sometimes, you know, it’s good to have experience, but sometimes it’s the bad experience. You’re too buddy-buddy with people, you’re too in the culture itself that you won’t change things, things will just be the same. So I don’t want to trade a Republican who is owned, or has a lot of connections to oil and gas, for a Democrat who’s just the same.

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