Unlike most statewide elections, this year’s race for an Oklahoma Corporation Commission seat doesn’t pit a Democrat against a Republican. Instead, incumbent Corporation Commission Chairman Todd Hiett will face Libertarian Todd Hagopian in a race that could also be called the Battle of the Todds.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is tasked with regulating public utilities — including approval or denial of rate increase requests — and the state’s oil and gas industry, among other industries.
Elected to a six-year term in 2014, Hiett said he is running for a second term because he sees plenty of challenges ahead for the state and he wants to be a part of the solutions.
“I’ve enjoyed the experience at the commission the last few years,” Hiett said. “We’ve had some challenging times and have some more ahead, but overall, I’ve been happy to have been part of moving the ball forward.”
Businessman Todd Hagopian’s website touts his “legalizing success” mantra. He sees the Corporation Commission as the perfect place for a Libertarian.
“I get that question a lot,” Hagopian said. “Why would a Libertarian want to serve on a Commission dealing with regulations? Well, not all regulations are bad. We need to make sure they are fair and that they are created in a productive way that protects the public but also doesn’t penalize innovation and business.”
Efficiency of Corporation Commission questioned
The state’s struggling oil and gas industry is among both candidates’ priorities. All told, the industry employs nearly 100,000 people in the state. But with energy prices remaining depressed, some companies like Chesapeake Energy and Sandridge have suffered extensively.
Hiett said the three-member Corporation Commission needs to make sure the industry can operate more efficiently.
“I’d like to see us move faster on issues and issuing permits,” he said. “There is a lot of oil and gas in Oklahoma, but drilling activity is way down. Still, there’s 200,000 wells in the state. We need to cover more pollution abatement and make the applications process move at a faster and more efficient pace.”
Hagopian is running on a platform of reducing regulations, stopping government from picking winners and losers and putting Oklahomans back to work. He sees all of those as key to encouraging economic development.
“It’s key that whenever you create a regulation, it’s necessary it pass two criteria,” Hagopian said. “It needs to be necessary for public safety and also fairly distributed among the industry it affects. That goes into the second item, which is to stop letting government pick winners and losers. Horizontal drillers over vertical drillers, for example. We really need to stop having lobbyists and career politicians making those decisions.”
‘We were still receiving faxes when I got there’
Hiett said one of the Corporation Commission’s biggest accomplishments has been the modernization of its technology over the last few years, which he said better serves the public.
“It was so far out of date that was creating a lot of challenges for the commission, but also from the outside for those trying to file for permits,” he said. “We were still receiving faxes when I got there. We have several years to go in the process, but it is improving rapidly and when completed will bring the commission up to date.”
Hiett also said keeping utility rates as low as possible is another priority.
“We enjoy low energy costs here,” Hiett said. “I think we’re either second or third lowest in the country. I’m proud of that as a commissioner, but you have to give credit to everyone. We want to see those affordable rates maintained and at the same time those providers earn a reasonable profit.”
Hagopian said one of the tasks he has undertaken during his campaign is educating people on what the Corporation Commission does and how its role has changed over the years.
“I don’t think this is something people have paid close attention to,” he said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people who vote on who is their commissioner but without really knowing what it does. And it’s hard to blame them. It used to handle public utilities, now it’s oil and gas and earthquakes. Its scope has expanded. They don’t know that it has a big impact on business in Oklahoma, and ultimately, their paycheck. I think we need to make clear what the mission is.”