March 4 primary: Art Hall

ArtHall In the Democratic Primary race to take on Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, former San Antonio Councilman Art Hall has been portrayed positively as a bridge-builder, and negatively as inexperienced (his campaign website originally touted rail-safety reform as a goal). Hall's critics have also suggested that he's merely looking for a statewide perch from which to seek a higher office. While Hall admitted to the Current that he was running for the RRC in part because he didn't think his conservative district would put him in the state house, he professed a real desire to influence energy policy and promised to serve a full six-year term.

Hall's opponent, three-time candidate and former Republican Dale Henry has been cast as the populist Don Quixote, tilting (forgive us) at windmills, but lordy, long on integrity and with decades of experience capping wells for the industry he would regulate. (Regular Current contributor Vince Leibowitz is working on Henry's campaign.) While both candidates promise to put protecting water quality and consumer safety ahead of industry profits, one key difference between them is their philosophy about the role the commission should play in shaping the state's energy future. Hall sees the post as an opportunity to promote energy conservation and efficiency and steer the industry toward alternative fuel sources. Henry says those "pie-in-the-sky" promises are a distraction from the agency's main job, which is promoting safety and efficiency in oil and gas drilling. This excerpt from an interview with Hall sheds more light on his goals for the RRC should he be elected.

What could the Railroad Commission do to incentivize alternative-energy development, since it's not really directly under your purview? `You've` said you thought that there were a number of things that could be done. Could you elaborate on some of those?

Now some of that, just know that I'd want the industries and the cities to come up with some of those examples. But I think from a policy point of view I think we can urge and we can push, and I think the point in time I suggested ... typically any gas-rate increases have to go through the Railroad Commission and typically they're rubberstamped. There may be some hemming and hawing and that sort of thing, but typically they're rubberstamped. I think that's the opportunity where the Railroad Commission comes in and says, if you want these gas-rate increases for whatever reason that they're needed, let's ask and push cities and energy companies to hey, ask them, what are you doing for energy conservation, and what are you doing for renewable fuels and alternative fuels. 

Let's say, for instance, a utility and a city have a conflict over a rate increase, it comes to the Railroad Commission. You guys could say, look, we think you're passing along some of the cost of maintenance and maybe you could be recouping that through more energy efficiency. What are you guys doing on that end ...
Absolutely, yes.

Is that an example of how the conversation might go?
Absolutely. And then I'd want to see a plan for reducing energy usage per capita, you know, what's the plan for that? Or what percentage of your energy sources are now coming from renewable fuels and alternative fuels? And so that's the idea. Now the model I use is SAWS. And I don't remember what year it was, but SAWS now has a water-conservation department, and while I was on council, I asked how did this get started? and my understanding is that 15 or 20 years ago, as council approves the bond packages that come through, the council said, hey, let's pause, typically we rubberstamp these things, but now we'd like SAWS, for you to dedicate one percent or so from your revenue directly to water conservation. And so now as a result of that push from a typical rubberstamping of a bond approval, SAWS now has 15 people that their whole work is dedicated to water conservation, and as a result, we've grown by 85 percent since 1980, but our water usage has only increased by 15 percent. And so that's the idea, is to use our bully pulpit to push cities and energy companies to advocate and implement renewable and alternative fuel policies as well as energy conservation policies.

When you look at alternative-energy options for Texas, things like conservation, solar, wind power, what to you seems like the right package of things that the state ought to be going forward with?
Certainly wind and solar are easy targets and easy to advocate. I'd like to see us do more to explore bio-diesel. I know that there's a big discussion now on the whole nuclear issues. The Railroad Commission doesn't necessarily have a whole lot to do with nuclear ...

As far as the uranium mining goes, though, you do have some regulation of how that's ...
Yes, we do. And I've been to Goliad County and talked with those folks down there. You know, no matter what we do -- even with clean energy sources, with solar and wind and so forth -- you've still got to do a good job with educating folks and making sure that you do everyitng as a commission to build the solar and wind farms etc. For the uranium issue in Goliad, certainly water quality is the biggest issue there, and what disturbs me about that whole system was that the Railroad Commission came in and placed the monitoring wells really, in my opinion, too late, and so you've got a starting point of when the mining began, you've got the monitoring wells that came in later, and then the end point at which they made their assessment of whether or not there's a water-quality issue. And the Railroad Commissioners came back and said, hey, there's no water-quality issue here. but the citizens will say that they should have begun their monitoring well before they did. That's a perfect example of, whether or not you agree or disagree with uranium mining or nuclear, the Railroad Commission did not do its job in properly assessing the water-quality issue.

There've been similar problems with saltwater injections wells.
Yes, similar problems with injection wells. My position on injections wells is, well first, I'd like to review a little bit more, in more detail, whether injection wells are a good thing for the environment. But number two, even if they are, then certainly I'd not want to put them in urban areas or near water sources.

It's interesting, too, that now people are talking about carbon sequestration, for instance, as maybe a solution to still having coal plants, but then injecting that down into the earth.
Right. And I'm not a scientist ... but the whole concept of injecting bad stuff back into the earth for safe-keeping is a little worrisome to me. I don't know how much research has been done and what the negatives to it are, but I guess I'm a little bit more skeptical about what we're doing on both the injection-well side as well as the carbon sequestration.

If we could talk about your candidacy more in general, I think one paper characterized you as saying, well, he'd be sort of the candidate who'd look to bring the two sides together, whereas Dale Henry would be sort of the populist, Don Quixote character. Do you think that's a fair characterization of the difference between your candidacies?
Well, no. First, on one side, certainly I've always been a person who can bring all sides together and come up with good solutions, and good solutions that are good not only for the environment but also for the quality of life in general. When I look at my candidacy and my service as a city-council member, people knew I was a Democrat, and yet I was elected in a 70-30 Republican area twice, and still recognized by the Sierra Club and other Democratic organizations. So it's the ability to be able to advocate for what you believe in and bring people together to resolve issues. So I think the characterization of me as somebody who can build bridges and bring poeple together is accurate. Now, on the populist side, and it's, the base of my candidacy and value system has always been populist, but then it's just making sure you don't turn people away, but bring people together while holding those values and ideals. And I don't necessarily like to talk negative about anybody and any candidate, but I think it's hard to believe that a person that's been 50 years in the industry, whose friends, and contacts, and connections are in the industry, to be that independent from the industry.

Maybe that answers in part the second part of my question. The other comparison that tends to be made is that, I think, you've been called impressive and personable, but then they'll talk about the fact that you don't have as much experience in this area as Henry does. What do you think are the strengths you bring to the position in addition to bridge-building?
I think I bring certainly the experience that you get when you serve in public office and bring people together. There's a whole skill set there that requires being sensitive to all sides and making sure that all people are pulled together and you resolve issues. And when you can't resolve issues that you make a hard decison as a commissioner or as a councilmember and back that decision. So I think that's certainly key. I think my advocacy for environmental issues, for quality of life issues, for health and safety, is what I bring to the table. But let me also mention -- and certainly I bring my legal experience and my financial experience to the table -- but what I've been hearing as I go out and campaign is that people do like the fact that I am fairly independent from the industry. I think people are looking for a person that's not connected, or not as connected as my opponent is, to the industry. And certainly in these sorts of positions you are a board of directors, and so you want to bring a different skill set to the table to resolve issues.

On the note of not connected to the industry, some people have raised the fact that your wife is an attorney for Valero. Is that a fair question to raise?
Certainly it's a fair question. The argument, though, is Valero rarely comes before the commission, if ever. They deal more with the interstate pipelines, so any intrastate issues won't -- it's rare that they come before the commission. But then my argument is, and this is the same for city council, I got lots of contributions from city council, but when you look at who was giving and what the average contribution was, my average contribution on city council was probably $105, $110, and really it's about the same now. And so I don't think it's fair that you look at one or two contributions and make your assessment on that. I've got lots of contributors and most of them are $100 and below, so when I have an average contribution of $110, the folks that are really backing me are average, everyday citizens. And when you look at my record, my record has been advocating for average, everyday citizens.

Would it be fair to say if something came before the commission and your wife was still employed there that you would recuse yourself?

It's interesting that you raise the money issue, too. I think the papers have often portrayed Henry as someone who has run on a small amount of money, but if I'm reading your sheets right, you're not exactly raking in the bucks, either. At the moment, anyways.
Well, it's starting to pick up. The last two weeks have really picked up and our difficulty is everybody's focusing on the presidential and U.S. Senate races. Now I think it'll definitely be much easier to fundraise after the primary. I think the big distinction between myself and my opponent is that I'm willing to go out there and fundraise, particulary after the primary, to win. I think you do have to raise money if you're gonna have a credible campaign. But the key in raising that money is to also remain independent and make good decisions based on, I guess, prioritizing the health, safety, and quality of life of average citizens. That's the key for me -- when I talked with some of the party officials, they weren't very happy with the past couple of races that my opponent has had just because he's not waged a credible campaign that requires getting your message out to the public.

When you talk about making traditional oil and gas as clean as possible, and at the same time transitioning to alternative fuels, is it your opinion that eventually we need to be off traditional oil and gas altogether, or do you see a long-term, indefinite role for them if we can improve the technology?
Well, first, I certainly believe that we should eventually come off traditional oil and gas. In fact, my opinion is that eventually we'll have to because we've got this whole concept of peak oil, and scientists say we will have found all the available reserves of oil and gas by 2012 or 2016, something along those lines. So at that point you're depleting those reserves, so eventually you'll run out of traditional oil and gas. So after that, then, you have to figure out, all right, where are all the new energy sources coming from? So my opinion is that eventually we'll have to because we won't have any traditional oil and gas left. So I think it's smart if we can transition our economy into something else more quickly. But at the same time I know that that transition won't be in five years and won't happen overnight. And so with that we've gotta do better with what we currently have as well, as we make that transition. but I will also say that traditional oil and gas, when I talk about making it cleaner and safer I'm also talking about the couplings that have been bursting, and exploding and so forth, I'm talking about the injection-well issues, I'm talking about uncapped wells that are polluting our aquifers, that's all part of that whole discussion.

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