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In 2020, some Texas Democrats cringed as Joe Biden said during the final presidential debate that he would “transition" from oil, lending credence to Republican attacks that their party is a threat to the state’s biggest industry.
Two years later, Texas Democrats are working to send a different message.
With the war in Ukraine underscoring the need for domestic energy production, they are trumpeting the international importance of the state’s oil sector and acknowledging the reality that it is not going away anytime soon. They still want to make sure that the state is working toward a cleaner, more renewable energy future, but their overall message toward the oil industry is one of solidarity, not hostility.
In a recent interview, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke recalled an encounter with a woman at a town hall in Midland who said she never voted Democratic before and had seven sons working in the oilfield. She asked him what he would do to make sure they do not lose their jobs.
“I said I’m gonna fight to make sure that we continue to be the leader in oil and gas globally, now more than ever,” O’Rourke said, citing the war in Ukraine. “We’re gonna have to produce this somewhere — I want it to be Texas. I want the jobs to be here.”
Republicans scoff at such talk, suggesting that if Democrats’ own positions do not sink them with voters who care about oil and gas, their unpopular president will. And Gov. Greg Abbott in particular is campaigning relentlessly on O’Rourke’s support as a 2020 presidential candidate for the Green New Deal, the aggressive plan to fight climate change championed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Texas’ oil and gas industry is essential to the state’s economy. The sector employed nearly 203,000 people as of July, an 11-year high, and generated $15.8 billion in tax revenue during fiscal year 2021, helping fund public schools, roads and more. Texas Republicans have long sworn unwavering support for the industry, while the state’s Democrats have had to walk a finer line as they weigh environmental concerns inside their party.
Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association, said he sees a “general understanding and appreciation among state candidates for the critical role our industry plays in the state from an economic and energy security perspective.”
“Anti-oil and gas rhetoric is elevated during every election cycle from those that choose to politicize our energy security, especially at the federal level,” Longanecker said in an email. “Fortunately, Texas is still a strong oil and gas state and I believe the candidates that support our industry will do well overall in the upcoming elections.”
Democrats are embracing the oil and gas industry beyond the governor’s race, too. The Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Mike Collier, is planning to spend the closing weeks of the race emphasizing his long resume in the industry, starting out as a landman for ExxonMobil.
Collier is releasing a TV ad Tuesday that leans into his oil-and-gas background. The commercial opens with Collier introducing himself and saying,"I'm a businessman, and I built a Texas energy company."
“It’s important for us to set the record straight that while Dan Patrick was a disc jockey, Mike was a landman working in Texas energy,” Collier campaign manager Ali Zaidi said. “This is a sector he knows in and out.”
Patrick, who was a conservative talk radio host in Houston before running for office, has sought to tie Collier to Biden and his energy policies, especially given that Collier was a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign in Texas.
Jay Kleberg, the Democratic nominee for land commissioner, held an energy-related news conference last week in Corpus Christi where he pitched "improvements to existing operations that will usher in a new energy future for Texans." Introducing Kleberg, local city council member Roland Barrera said Kleberg "is not bought and paid for by oil and gas, nor is he a servant of the Green New Deal."
Farther down the ballot, the two most endangered Democrats in the congressional delegation, Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, are openly campaigning on their support for the oil and gas industry. It is especially nothing new for Cuellar, whose critics have dubbed him “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat.”
Both Cuellar and Gonzalez pushed back earlier this year when Biden sent a letter to oil refiners suggesting they were profiting too much off of high gas prices. Gonzalez told Biden to “stop the blame game.” When both voted in August to pass Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act, they went out of their way to try to assuage concerns that it would adversely impact the oil and gas industry.
“I fought to make sure the oil and gas industry was not the prime target by DC elitists” in the bill, Cuellar said in a statement, taking credit for ensuring that “several harmful provisions to our Texas oil & gas companies were removed.”
Cuellar and Gonzalez are part of a group of Texas Democrats who have tried to advocate to Congressional leadership and the White House for sensical energy policies, according to Jason Modglin, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
“Maybe some of their national party will listen to them,” said Modglin, who used to work as director of public affairs for Christi Craddick, a Republican Texas railroad commissioner who regulates the state’s oil and gas industry. “Particularly when some of these Congressional proposals are anti-oil and gas. That’s a difficult thing, to oppose your party.”
The 2020 election season looms large over the current conversation. During the 2020 presidential primary, Democrats campaigned vigorously on their desire to wean the nation off fossil fuels. Then came Biden’s debate comment, which came in response to then-President Donald Trump asking Biden if he would “close down the oil industry.”
“Yes, I would transition,” Biden replied.
Luke Warford, the Democratic nominee for railroad commissioner, said Biden’s comment “had a real impact in Texas and in particular a real impact on Latino Texans that work in the oil and gas industry.” After the election, at least one prominent South Texas Democrat, then-U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville, openly blamed such rhetoric for Biden’s underperformance in the region.
“What he said in that debate … really landed as an attack on people’s livelihoods,” Warford said in an interview, “and I think there is a lot of progress to be made by making the case that I as a railroad commissioner — and Democrats — are actually good for the economy of this state, but in particular good for people that work in the oil and gas industry. I’m spending a lot of time making that case.”
Warford said it is not just the war in Ukraine, but also the 2021 power-grid collapse that shows “we need Texas oil and gas more than ever before.” After all, a majority of Texas power plants that produce electricity to power the grid run on natural gas.
“Even the most ambitious models looking at getting to net zero have continued oil and gas production for a long time,” Warford said. “Millions of Texans work in the industry. Texas oil and gas is going to be around for a long time. The question for me is how do we make oil and gas cleaner and lower emissions in the industry?”
Warford is running against Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian. Like other Republicans on the ballot this fall, Christian sees the unpopular president as an overriding factor when it comes to any Democratic overtures to the oil-and-gas industry.
“My opponent would be a rubber stamp for Biden’s anti-oil and gas, Green New Deal agenda,” Christian said in a statement, warning that economic problems “would only be exasperated if our oil and gas industry was overseen by a liberal Democrat.”
The oil and gas industry is front and center in the governor’s race, where Abbott considers it one of his biggest contrasts with O’Rourke. Abbott and his campaign have most prominently criticized O’Rourke over multiple comments he made before and during his 2020 presidential campaign that expressed support for the Green New Deal.
“Anti-energy industry candidate Beto O’Rourke’s support for the Green New Deal and curtailing oil and gas drilling would DESTROY the Texas energy industry, killing hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said in one statement earlier this year.
O’Rourke has declined to revisit his 2020 comments on the Green New Deal. Asked for a comment on them, his campaign provided a statement that did not address the Green New Deal. Instead, the campaign highlighted that O’Rourke, a former El Paso congressman, “regularly worked with Republicans to protect and expand Texas’ energy dominance and energy independence.” O’Rourke’s campaign pointed out that, for example, he voted in 2015 to lift the ban on exporting oil.
Beyond the Green New Deal, Abbott’s campaign has cited O’Rourke’s support for ending fracking on federal lands and instituting a cap-and-trade program. In a recent interview, O’Rourke noted there is little federal land in Texas and said he was proud of the innovation behind fracking, “but I know that we can do it far more responsibly than we’ve done in the past.” He was less direct when asked about cap and trade, or the idea of giving polluters a diminishing number of “allowances” for emissions, saying he wanted to listen to state energy leaders about how they can “incentivize Texas to do the right thing.”
O’Rourke has also faced the Abbott campaign’s wrath over his advocacy — also during the presidential campaign — for legislation by then-U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., to permanently ban oil and gas leasing off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. O’Rourke emphasized in the recent interview that the bill would not have prohibited offshore drilling off the coast of Texas, saying he “did not support the exclusion of our gulf from energy exploration.”
O’Rourke broke with his party on offshore drilling in 2016, opposing an amendment to cut off drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. But he walked back that vote in his 2020 presidential campaign.
O’Rourke is no stranger to the fraught politics of energy that come with being a Texas Democrat. He especially got a taste of that in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, when candidates were racing to one-up one another on how aggressively they would fight climate change. O’Rourke was forced to revisit some of his energy-related votes in Congress, including the one on offshore drilling, and his energy plan was criticized as insufficient by the Sunrise Movement, a top group that advocates for the Green New Deal.
These days, O’Rourke largely campaigns on the importance of the Texas oil and gas industry and what he would do to protect its jobs going forward. Since the start of his campaign, he has touted a Texas AFL-CIO plan to create over 1 million jobs in wind and solar generation while keeping oil and gas workers employed.
Jim Chapman, a former longtime Democratic congressman from East Texas who won reelection repeatedly in the region where oil first boomed in Texas, said O’Rourke has moderated and “fine-tuned” a variety of his positions, including on energy.
“We all change,” Chapman said. “My career in politics was 25 years. I moderated some positions and got tougher in others as I went along. It wasn’t that my core philosophy was changing. It was that the circumstances were changing. God knows circumstances are changing all around us.”
Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corporation and Texas Alliance of Energy Producers have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, Sept. 27, 2022: A previous version of this story misidentified the former role of Jason Modglin. He was director of public affairs for Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, not her chief of staff.