Why you should care

Sometimes local government has a global impact.

On a winter afternoon in Austin, Texas, a dark-haired woman — her chin barely visible over her desk — moves swiftly through a permit to drill, a review of disposal, a license to frack and more than 500 other requests. Within just a few hours, she’s approved hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of projects, all with the swipe of her pen. It’s just another Tuesday for Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Christi Craddick.

There’s a saying in Texas: “What starts here changes the world.” It seems like a stereotypically oversize Texan attitude, but these days, it’s pretty true. The future of U.S. energy and the dawn of its energy independence is happening here, in a state whose economy — the second biggest in the country — is run in large part by oil and gas. In Texas, oil is king. And Craddick — who helms America’s largest state oil and gas regulatory body and has a penchant for wearing Republican red and pearls — is its queen.

This is a critical moment for the tightly composed politician, who tends to keep her hands clasped in front of her on the table, smiling through difficult questions then responding with a crisp twang. Thanks in no small part to fracking, the U.S. is the world’s leading oil producer, and Texas is the top producing state. That’s quite a spot for the leader of an obscure local agency with a misleading name (the Railroad Commission handles state oil and gas regulation, not railroads).

But that’s the funny thing about local government: Sometimes, a swirl of unpredictable events lands obscure figures at the crossroads of the country’s future. Think of Robert Moses, the midcentury urban planner hired by New York City to plan a road or two, who ended up reworking the constellation of the city. Or Katherine Harris, the unknown Florida secretary of state who in 2000, in those tense days of chits and chads, effectively chose the president. Today, a fluke of geology places Craddick, a West Texas single mom, in the driver’s seat of the country’s new energy era.

“I have no environmental concerns about fracking.”

Her journey has been rough of late. The people of Denton, a college town that’s outside Dallas and atop Barnett Shale, one of the country’s best fracking spots, recently voted to ban the process. It’s one of the few issues that causes Craddick’s veneer to crinkle; she’s been rattled by the blowback and believes “misinformation” led voters to ban fracking. Still, the 44-year-old, who calls the Railroad Commission “business-friendly,” has since stepped in, arguing that her agency — not the city — determines permitting. The Texas General Land Office and the Texas Oil and Gas Association have gone a step further and filed suits against the city.

It may seem heavy-handed, but even environmental leaders admit she’s probably right on the law. Still, Tom Smith, director of the environmental group Public Citizen, says Craddick runs at the pleasure of the oil industry and is “in a race for environmental enemy No. 1, in terms of her ability to wreak havoc.” (Craddick says her office will keep issuing permits in Denton and that, overall, “I have no environmental concerns about fracking.”)

Indeed, she’s just getting started. Her term ends in four years, and her position is often a “springboard for higher office,” says Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter. Previous leaders of the Railroad Commission have become legislators or even run for governor. For now, though, Craddick is looking through her agency’s window toward the most actively drilled shale reserve in the country — the Eagle Ford, which just hours before was granted dozens of permits to frack — and she’s convinced it’s getting the balance right: “Texas is a role model for how energy policy should be run.”

Craddick, who grew up in Midland surrounded by oil rigs, was born for this job. Her father, Tom Craddick, is an oilman turned legislator, and she accompanied him to state Republican conventions by age 12. After studying law at the University of Texas and interning at the Railroad Commission, Craddick got pulled back into politics while advising dad, who’d become speaker of the Texas House. Though Craddick thought she “was never going to run,” voters elected her to the three-person Railroad Commission in 2012, and this winter she was made chairman.

Some critics call Craddick “daddy’s girl” and suggest she got there through him. She admits her father has a great reputation but says she made it through hard work, though signs of her father linger — like when she sets her ice water on a leather coaster emblazoned with his name. As a woman in the masculine world of oil and gas, Craddick has tightly refined her image to deter any distraction from the business at hand. Indeed, she’s more at ease speaking about wellheads and methane than her home life, and she prefers the title “chairman” to “chairwoman.”

When we visited, Craddick was busy between meetings with members of the legislature, which is in its biennial session — and dealing with oil’s price drop. Craddick says that shouldn’t be cause for alarm, even if more than a third of Texas’ economy is linked to the sector and major layoffs are rolling out. “It’s part of the normal business cycle,” says Craddick, who’s confident the economy will bounce back. Plus, she adds, “We’ve found OPEC doesn’t control the price of oil anymore.” With that, a smile dances across her maroon lips before she heads over to the Capitol.

*A previous version of this article misstated that the Railroad Commission had filed suit against Denton.

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