A low-profile race unfolding in Texas could have an outsize impact on the energy industry and the environment.

Texas voters are set to pick a new occupant for an open seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state's top oil and gas regulator — and for the first time in recent memory in the staunchly conservative state, a Democrat looks to be competitive.

'Tremendous responsibility'

“The Railroad Commission has not been on most people’s radar because there’s confusion about what it does, and it’s so far down the ballot that most people are not playing close attention to it,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

“It’s usually ignored, which is a shame, because it’s an office that has tremendous responsibility and has a significant say in both how the economy of the oil and gas industry functions as well as the environmental side of the impacts of that regulation.”

For example, the commission has recently made an effort to address flaring, an environmental black eye for the oil and gas industry.

Engineer and oil and gas lawyer Chrysta Castaneda, who is vying to be the first Democrat to be elected Railroad Commissioner in some 30 years, thinks the panel should do more to address flaring by cutting back on the number of exception permits it issues to upstream operators.

"This is the most important race for the climate and for the environment in the United States in the entire 2020 election cycle," Castaneda told Upstream.

"If we would simply enforce the regulations that have already been on the books we could have a tremendous impact in reducing the carbon that is emitted by the oil and gas sector in Texas."

Her moderate stance has won her key endorsements in Texas. Last week, Bloomberg reported that Castaneda won a key oilfield endorsement: that of Matt Gallagher, chief executive of Permian player Parsley Energy.

But her run has garnered national attention as well. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who made an attempt for the Democratic nomination for president earlier this year, recently splashed $2.6 million on her campaign.

Castaneda's main opponent is rancher and oilfield services firm owner Jim Wright, a political novice and self-described "solid conservative" who won the Republican nomination in a surprise primary upset earlier this year against incumbent Ryan Sitton.

"Honestly, it’s still a puzzle how he beat Ryan Sitton," Rottinghaus said.

In emailed responses to Upstream, Wright attacked Castaneda and what he called "anti-industry groups" for skewing "negative" on issues like flaring.

"We need a Railroad Commissioner that recognises the positive economic and environmental benefits of natural gas and helps molecules make their way to power plants, stove tops and and foreign markets," Wright said.

"The Railroad Commission needs to do our part to educate the public on the great and responsible measures the oil and gas industry is taking to protect our environment while sustaining a fierce economic pace."

'Real chance' for Democrats

Rottinghaus likes Castaneda's chances for winning, pointing to her moderate approach as someone who can walk the balance between economic and environmental concerns.

Large early voting numbers in Texas could also help Castaneda.

The Castaneda campaign reported more than $3.7 million in donations in the weeks leading up to the 3 November election and the candidate received endorsements from some of the state's major newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle.

Wright is currently staring down a number of lawsuits by plaintiffs that claim they are owed money from his oilfield waste business.

He has downplayed the legal issues and accused the opposition of using "extreme attacks" for political gain.

Rottinghaus said: "I think with a weakened Republican nominee and, in effect, an open seat, there’s a real chance the Democrats could sneak out a win here."

Even if that happens, there are questions about how effective Castaneda could be, as she would face a Republican majority on the commission.

While she would likely be outnumbered on most issues, Rottinghaus said, the commission has been split on issues like flaring in the past and Castaneda could be an important swing vote.

"It also is the case that the Republican majority would no longer have as clear a path to getting their preferred policies," he said.

"The margin of error is larger with a potential opposition vote on the commission. So she wouldn’t dramatically change every vote, but she could certainly alter close votes."