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March 4 primary: Dale Henry

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 Henry is an eye-opening and entertaining look at a man who's not afraid to employ some good old-fashioned rhetoric.


Do you feel like the public is getting a grip on the Railroad Commission and why it's important?
Well, some of 'em, when we get around, get to talk to 'em.

When you talk to folks, what do you tell them are the three top things the commission needs to address?
Well, in my opinion we need to address the safety of the people of Texas, that's 20 million of 'em plus, that hasn't been done by the Railroad Commission in the past because of a thing called public interest. When they have hearings at the Railroad Commission with the public, whatever the problem might be with the public, they take the attitude that public interest only is a result of taking care of the oil companies, not the poeple of the state of Texas. The result is they always rule in favor of the oil companies.

Give me a couple of examples. I know a lot of people are mad about the rates, but what's a public-safety example?
Well, the public-safety example for one is, in North Texas there's a great drilling program for natural gas, which is the biggest in the United States at the present time and probably as big as there is in the world, and the net result of all of that drilling requires lots of water produced, which is saltwater with contaminants which has to be injected into the ground to get rid of it. I'm talking about tens of thousands of barrels a day, and that's creating a very big hazard to the people through contamination of the shallow underground water supplies that they have for their animals and the wildlife and their houses and that sort of thing, as well as potential contaminant to the deeper underground freshwater aquifers. So that requires a lot of hearings down at the Railroad Commission for people protesting these wells and the net result of that is they always rule in favor of the oil operator, until one well out of North Texas got all the way to the Third Court of Appeals in Austin in the last couple of months and the Court of Appeals ruled that the Railroad's definition of protecting the oil companies wasn't the proper definition of public interest; the public interest was to protect the public and they needed to start looking at it that way. And for 106 years the Railroad Commission -- that's since 1901 when Spindletop came in -- the Railroad Commission has taken that attitude, to protect the oil companies whatever the cost.

Now let's say you're elected to the commission. There'd still be two Republicans on there who are very pro-industry. How would you approach that situation?
Well, you just have to get in there and work. Number one, I don't accept any contributions from the industry or anyone, so I'm free and easy to take a problem and look at it for the people as I would for myself, and see that I don't have anybody breathing down my neck that's wanting special interest, not public interest but special interest. So you have to work with those people. I've done that for years, this is not a problem. I know how to work with people and how to reach equitable solutions for the three commissioners as well as the other side, whichever side it might be.

Your opponent in the Democratic primary, one of them, Art Hall, has suggested that maybe because you worked in the industry for 40 years that a lot of these people are gonna be your friends ...
Negative! I didn't work for any of the oil companies, I was a service-company operator and I only did the services out there that they contracted to be done. I've never received a dollar in payroll or otherwise from an oil company anywhere, I don't have any friends out there any different than the friends that you play bridge with at night or dominos in the afternoon, go on vacation with for the kids to swim, that sort of thing -- there's no ties to anybody in the oil business other than pure friendship. And I'm 100-percent on integrity and those folks don't bother me at all. I don't care what the people say, I'm the one that lives my life, not the people.

Let's talk a little bit about alternative energy. Do you see a role for the Railroad Commission to ...
We're a little early on that; Art's way out of bounds on that. The Railroad Commission is not in the business of research and development on alternative energies, they're in the business of regulating oil and gas and any other thing that comes along that is approved by the legislature and by the three commissioners that they need to regulate. I was one of the number ones in alternative energy, back 30, 40 years ago, 'fore Art was born. I was out on windmill projects and using waterfalling through the streams to turn turbines and generate electricity through small generators. I 've been in on many of the other things that could turn out to be alternative energies through research and development.

But you don't see that as the Railroad Commissioners' goal...
I'm not saying it's not gonna be in the future; it's not right now, and future means years and years and years down the road. You can't jump in there and start your own research and development program. So what it amounts to, you have to work with the research and development people, whether they're with big oil or electrical companies or any other corporation, just a small inventor out there, but it's not the program of the Railroad Commission to go out and promote alternative energies.

So, for instance, Mr. Hall was suggesting that when rate approvals come before the committee ... that instead of just approving the rate hike the Railroad Commission could tie it to incentives for, say, conservation programs. Do you feel that is or isn't an appropriate thing for the Railroad Commission to do?
Well, the Railroad Commission has to look at the facts. And we're getting way out of, I guess, the ballpark on these sort of things, and Elaine, the reason is I'm 40-odd years in the business, and I understand oil and gas inside-out, upside-down, any way you want ot look at it, and we're talking about pie in the sky of all of these things, from people that do not have a background in the industry, and that gets everybody confused, and I'm out here to separate the confusion from the facts, and I know the facts.

In terms of oil and gas, going forward do you see them as something where long-term we can still look at them for energy solutions?
Well, that's the only thing, Elaine. We've been at it a long, long time, and you're not gonna replace fossil fuels overnight with any other kind of program. You may suddenly, with lots of hard work, start inching in on a percent here or a percent there; we still have vast stores of oil and gas in the ground here in the state of Texas, not only around the world. And all of the appliances, the vehicles, the machinery in big factories, you can go on and on, is based on operating with fossil fuel primarily, so you can't cut it off overnight. And we still have it, so again, this is pie in the sky stuff people keep talking about that have no knowledge about the real facts with alternative fuels, how they come about and how you could move them to get ahead to replace fossil fuels. The real deal, the real deal, and I'll repeat that again, the real deal is that we abandon producing oil wells with 40 percent only of the fossil fuel in place, maybe even less than that, leaving 60 or more percent in the ground, because improper production, improper drilling, improper completion of the wells themselves. The basic things have got to be changed here. I've plugged over 3,500-hundred wells as contractor for the Railroad Commission. I was on every one of 'em. I see the abuse, and we have to use the word "malicious," abuse that's been applied to our fossil-fuel industry by both the Railroad Commission and the operators themselves. They're only out ot make a dollar and they'll take every shortcut in the world. And I'm not talking against the oil and gas operators; we just have to improve the efficiency with which they work as an oversight or regulatory commission with the Railroad Commission -- three commissioners and their employees -- that is their objective, that is their charter, that's what they're supposed to do, and they haven't done it in 106 years. That's the reason we're in the mess we're in in fossil fuels.

Now if you could, some people have suggest that the Railroad Commission's name ought be changed and that some of what it does ought to be changed. If you could write what you feel...
But again, Elaine, we're talking about things out here that don't have anything to do with 20 million people, to protect and take care and make sure that their future generations are moving ahead forward -- what's a name? Yeah, I'm for changing a name, but that don't get you any more fuel, it don't protect your water, it don't do anything. Why are we talking about subjects that are strictly a cover-up for lack of knowledge by the people that's been in the Railroad Commission 106 years and my opponents that are trying to cover-up what the real problem is. Let's go out and take care of our fossil fuels, and take care of our water, and take care of our people. That's the three things that I'm going there for and I know how to do it.

Posted by Elaine Wolff on 3/3/2008
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