“We call it ‘Humpjack,’” Sarah Stogner told me with a laugh.
We’re talking over the phone just a few days before Stogner is set to face off against a powerful incumbent in a runoff election for one of the most important oil and gas regulatory bodies in the world. And we’re talking, of course, about that video: a campaign ad released in February featuring Stogner wearing nothing but star-shaped pasties, straddling a pumpjack in the middle of a Texas field.
The ad cost Stogner, an underdog in a crowded primary for Texas Railroad Commissioner, her sole newspaper endorsement from the San Antonio Express-News, which called the video “disgraceful.” (The paper re-endorsed her in March, calling her the “best” candidate “despite hoopla.”) But it also got people’s attention before March’s Republican primary election, helping to give Stogner, an oil and gas lawyer, a sliver of a lead over the other candidates in the race against incumbent Commissioner Wayne Christian—who himself failed to garner the 50% of the vote needed to win.
“My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner,” Stogner said of the ad. “I thought, I am confident I’ve got the substance behind me, so if I can just get their attention, I’ll win them over. Like, vote for anybody but Wayne [Christian]—take a look.”
Now, Stogner is gearing up for a David-and-Goliath level runoff election against Christian on May 24. And while she’s no climate hawk, Stogner’s election could represent a real opportunity to change a key regulatory body and get a damaging industry to heel—and help curb some of its catastrophic emissions in the process.
Railroad Commission (RRC) elections aren’t normally spicy affairs. It’s a poorly-understood position, thanks in part to its confusing name, that doesn’t exactly generate enormous voter turnout. But the RRC, which was founded in the late 1800s and has nothing to actually do with trains, has a big job: its commissioners are responsible for overseeing all aspects of the oil and gas industry in Texas, from pipelines to gas utilities to natural gas supply to regulating emissions and pollution from production. Given that 43% of the U.S.’s crude oil and 25% of its natural gas is produced in Texas, the RRC is one of the most important oil and gas regulatory bodies in the country, if not the world.
For all its power, the RRC is also incredibly opaque—with worrying ties to the industry it’s supposed to be keeping tabs on. Unlike regulatory bodies in other states, commissioners are allowed to maintain financial relationships with fossil fuel companies: commissioner Christi Craddick, for instance, has extensive ties to natural gas producers, and has not recused herself from ruling in decisions where companies she has a stake in are involved. Meanwhile, the RRC has continually and quietly shot down efforts to change its name, which some suspect is motivated by a drive to keep its purpose secret to voters. Encouraging Texans to vote on the party line and not much else has largely worked for the RRC: no Democrat has sat on the Commission since 1994. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the RRC has a history of allowing oil and gas companies to get away with murder, effectively doing little to no regulating for the industry they’ve been tasked with policing. (The RRC’s lax hand may be a reason why the U.S. is the third largest emitter of methane in the world, thanks to emissions from an industry allowed to do what it wishes.)
To be clear, Stogner, who is also running as a Republican after more than a decade of working as an oil and gas lawyer, is still an industry booster. But it’s telling that one of Stogner’s core campaign positions is simply to enforce the laws that are on the books—something that could make a real difference in curbing the harmful effects of the industry on the environment, and something she says the current RRC is failing to do. She has also refused to take any campaign money from the industry.
“I think they’re bought and paid for by the industry,” she told me of the RRC. “The oil and gas industry is at a crossroads. We’ve known in the industry that we’re indispensable, but we’ve done a bad job explaining to people why they need us. We’re finally at this point where people are like, you’re playing with our finances, you’re playing with national security, and that shouldn’t be politicized. Hopefully, we can turn around politics and hire subject matter experts to be public servants for a minute, go into office, and get out and go about living their lives.”
It’s helpful to Stogner that her current opponent, Christian, is almost cartoonishly bad at regulating the industry. Christian, who has held the Commissioner position since 2016 and served as the RRC’s Chairman since 2019, is arguably one of the most outspoken proponents of the oil and gas industry in the country currently serving in elected office. A former Grammy nominated gospel singer turned career politician who served in the Texas House for more than 15 years, Christian has seemingly taken every opportunity while in office to act as a mouthpiece for the oil and gas industry. Along with his fellow Commissioner Jim Wright, Christian has repeatedly gone on record sowing doubt about climate science. (“The idea that in 12 years the sun will have gotten so hot or the seas risen so much that large swaths of earth become uninhabitable is laughable nonsense deserving of ridicule,” Christian said in an emailed statement to Earther last year in response to a question on his views on climate science.)
Unfortunately for Christian, voters this year seem to be paying much closer attention to the RRC, especially after last February’s winter storm caused statewide blackouts for a week and killed hundreds. Republican politicians, including Christian, made renewable energy a scapegoat for the blackouts, but the RRC’s lax regulations for the natural gas industry played a big role in how the disaster played out, and have gotten a lot of criticism in subsequent months. There’s other PR problems for Christian, too: in February, reports surfaced of how Christian accepted a $100,000 campaign donation from a company in his hometown of Center, Texas, just days after he and another commissioner went against their staff’s recommendations and greenlit a problematic permit for the company to build an oil waste disposal site. Meanwhile, increasing environmental problems from old abandoned wells, and the RRC’s lax regulation of cleanup, have also garnered criticism. In early January, an abandoned and poorly-maintained well began to shoot salt water a hundred feet into the sky, painting a dramatic picture of what lax regulation of the industry can do to the land.
It’s those wells that got Stogner into this race in the first place. Last summer, she was going through a divorce, living in the poolhouse of Ashley Watts, a ranch owner in West Texas who has been outspoken about the harms abandoned oil wells have done to her property. Stogner, who Watts had hired as her lawyer to represent her in cases about the wells, began making TikToks about the problems abandoned wells can cause.
“I was getting more results by posting TikTok videos than I was by calling regulators and filing lawsuits,” she said. Running for the RRC, she said, was simply a way to continue her campaign to get people to pay attention.
“I really didn’t want to win,” she said, laughing.
But throughout the weeks of the race, she grew increasingly frustrated with her opponents’ campaigns—and more determined that someone needed to beat Christian. The decision to release the “humpjack” video, which had been filmed as a joke on Watts’s property a few months before, was spur-of-the-moment, borne out of a desire to get people’s attention on the campaign.
“On Superbowl Sunday, I had a couple beers, and I was like — I need a Superbowl ad,” she said. “And I was like, screw it. I don’t want to leave anything on the table. If we don’t make it to a runoff I’m always going to say what if, and this is the kind of thing to make people talk.”
Christian’s current strategy against Stogner, in response, seems to be to talk about anything other than actually regulating the oil and gas industry. A graphic that Christian has circulated on Twitter, which Stogner says he has printed out to mail to voters and hand out at rallies, that compares him and Stogner mentions energy issues only once. The other categories compare Stogner and Christian on seemingly unrelated issues like abortion, gun rights, critical race theory, “sexual content in schools” (ie, queer people), and police; much of the material on Stogner was farmed from tweets she wrote before she decided to run for office. (Christian has brought abortion into his campaigns for RRC before.)
Stogner seemed totally unbothered by these allegations, saying that she knowingly did not scrub her social media before she ran. Christian is “not giving the voters enough credit,” she said. “They’re not stupid. They don’t give a shit what I think about the heartbeat bill, they need me to regulate oil and gas.”
Still, she’s got a steep hill to climb to win on Tuesday. Despite the attention this year’s race has gotten, only 3% of voters had turned in early ballots on Friday, she told me. And Christian has garnered some powerful GOP allies, including endorsements from Lt. Gov Dan Patrick and former Texas governor, Trump Department of Energy Secretary, and Dancing with the Stars celeb Rick Perry.
Regardless, she sounds chipper about her chances.
“I’m gonna win,” she said. “Or I’m gonna take out Christi Craddick in two years.”
Update 5/23/22 1:24 PM EST: This story has been updated to include the fact that the San Antonio Express-News re-endorsed Stogner in March.