After 18 Years, Swan Song for the Deep Blue Democrat of the Texas Legislature

'I have a responsibility to investigate the failures of our state regulatory agencies,' says Rep. Lon Burnam, an opponent of unbridled oil development.

Texas State Rep. Lon Burnam is leaving office after 18 years. Credit: David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News

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During his 18 years in office, Texas state representative Lon Burnam has been the odd man out in a legislature that overwhelmingly believes in business, development and the unbridled support of oil and gas.

During the last session of the House, he introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation that would have required the industry to become a more responsible steward of the environment and the state to be more of an industry watchdog.

His record: Zero wins and 12 losses. 

In an interview with InsideClimate News last summer, when asked why he doesn’t just move away, Burnam said he stays because Texas needs to hear from a Texan what the future holds for the environment if change isn’t made.

Although the Fort Worth Democrat was defeated in his party’s primary in March, and has less than three months left in office, he maintains his resolve to represent the interests of his constituents, particularly when it pertains to state regulation of the oil and gas industry. 

Burnam is accustomed to losing in the partisan world of Texas politics, given that he’s a deep blue Democrat in a deep red state. During his legislative career, in which he now ranks 20th in seniority in the 150-member House, he also has introduced legislation to legalize gay marriage, abolish the death penalty and recognize the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade. No matter that he’s often cast as a liberal pariah, he has no regrets.

“You do what’s right,” he said.

Burnam is a member of the House Energy Resources Committee and has been a critic of both the state Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, agencies charged with regulating the oil and gas industry. 

“I have a responsibility to investigate the failures of our state regulatory agencies and to protect the citizens of the state,” he said. “It’s in my job description.”

But it’s more than in his job description. It is woven into his moral fiber.

In an interview this month, while driving from his home in Fort Worth to the Capitol in Austin, Burnam spoke with InsideClimate News about his legislative successes and failures involving oil and gas regulation and the role Texas plays in the national discussion about oil and gas development. 

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

ICN: How do you make people understand the significance of health effects from oil and gas emissions in Texas?

Burnam: It’s really difficult because it’s not like the smokestack industries where you can easily see the poison and understand that it’s probably not good for you. All of this is much more subtle and difficult to explain to people. They have to see for themselves the consequences and not be either oblivious to what’s happening or so swayed by the industry that they don’t see what’s happening. 

ICN: What will it take for the issue of oil and gas emissions’ impact on public health to get traction?

Burnam: It’s as easy as this: If we could just get to 40 percent voter participation in a gubernatorial election you would see a sea change in our political environment.

ICN: In what respect? 

Burnam: People will start voting for better health care; better regulation of the environment. I mean, let’s face it, for 20 years we have been completely dominated by Republican, anti-regulatory sentiment in this state. The few people who vote—vote to continue that philosophy from one administration to the next. It’s those people who don’t vote who can decide to make changes.

ICN: What do you see as the course for Texas—in terms of regulating the industry from a public health stand point—if Wendy Davis, the Democrat wins the governorship—or if Greg Abbott, the Republican wins?

Burnam:  For sure if Abbott wins it will be same ole, same ole. The state will continue on its course of resisting any sort of regulation of the industry.

I’m not sure what will happen with Wendy. But I can’t help but think it will be better based on her performance as senator…She knows what’s going on with our air pollution issues. She knows that and has articulated that. Whether or not she will try to address that, I don’t know for sure.

No matter what the outcome, fundamentally this will be the most right wing legislature in our history. So the constraint for anybody who is head of the executive branch is what the legislative branch will let them do. 

ICN: How much influence does Texas have on how the rest of the country views oil and gas development? 

Burnam: We are way disproportionally influential because of the oil and gas economy here and just our size. And when you see that we have the least regulation of any state over the industry, except for maybe Louisiana, and you see Texas setting the minimum standards, then that does carry some influential weight. “See, that’s how Texas does it. If it’s good for Texas it’s good for us.”

ICN: What would you do to address public health issues in connection with oil and gas emissions?

Burnam: First let me say we are going to have fracking. What we need to do is figure out several things. One is I believe we can eliminate 85 percent of the emissions if we just use the mechanisms that are available now. We need to employ the technology that is now available but not being employed by the industry or being mandated by the state.

ICN: Would stricter emissions regulations cripple the industry and damage the economy, as the industry and its supporters warn?

Burnam: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. That is just wrong-headed nonsense as perpetuated by the industry. That industry is extraordinarily healthy and well situated to absorb the cost of doing business. It’s an absurd argument on the face of it given the wealth of the industry. 

ICN: Describe the effectiveness of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Texas Railroad Commission in terms of regulating the oil and gas industry.

Burnam: Both of them, in large measure, are owned lock stock and barrel by the industry. So there is little incentive for these agencies to seek change or make a stand on behalf of people in Texas who are suffering because the industry has free rein.

ICN: What needs to happen to make that change?

Burnam: It has to start with the citizens of Texas saying they’ve had enough and voice that at the polls. The message has to be delivered though the people put into office by voters. 

ICN: Some people say the benefits that oil and gas production bring to the economy are worth the trade-off in poor air quality.

Burnam: What’s so bad about it is we are killing people. The evidence is there. All you have to do is look at the incidents of cancer along the cancer coast of Texas, which is where the refineries go from Harris County (in southeastern Texas) to the Louisiana border. There is a reason they have higher rates of virtually every type of cancer–air pollution created by the petrochemical industry. 

ICN: Given that Texas is at the epicenter of oil and gas development in the United States, what is its responsibility to the country to set the standards to regulate the industry and its emissions? 

Burnam: The powers that be in the state feel we have no responsibility to the rest of the country. We have a backwards attitude. We don’t feel a responsibility. If we did we’d be doing a better job at home.

ICN: What are the consequences to the state if there isn’t better regulation of oil gas emissions? 

Burnam: People will die needlessly.

ICN: Who are the winners in Texas, given the state’s current regulatory outlook toward the industry’s emissions? 

Burnam: Well, the industry itself. And of course the industry itself is so tied to the rest of the economy the opponents to regulation maintain it’s in the best interest of the overall economy of the state not to regulate. 

ICN: Who are the losers in Texas given the state’s current regulatory outlook toward emissions and the oil and gas industry?

Burnam: The breathers. There are all sorts of studies that link breathing illness to air pollution, and the industry’s emissions are a big contributor to pollution in this state.

ICN: If you were given the opportunity to set the course for Texas in the way it regulates oil and gas emissions, what would you do?

Burnam: I would change the philosophical direction of the state to one that acknowledges the risks to people’s health as the consequence of the state’s poor regulation of the industry. That, of course, is what I’ve been trying to do for a long time, but not meeting with very much success.