In 2016, GOP Rep. Brian Babin didn’t even have a Democratic challenger in Texas’ 36th Congressional District. He beat a Green Party candidate with close to 90 percent of the vote in the general election. The 36th is considered a “safe” Republican district by the Cook Political Report, but this time, two Democrats are running in their party’s primary — and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey flooding, they see a chance to win.

Harvey wreaked havoc on southeast Texas, putting some communities under more than 50 inches of water. The Houston area and nearby Gulf Coast region is home to numerous oil refineries and chemical plants, many of which have emitted benzene plumes and other toxic chemicals into the air because of shutdowns and explosions due to flooding. One plant in Babin’s district, owned by French chemical manufacturing company Arkema, suffered numerous explosions on August 31 and the days after, releasing dangerous airborne toxins that sent police and first responders to the hospital.

Arkema successfully lobbied against key chemical safety provisions with the help of elected officials including Babin and nine other Texan members of Congress, as International Business Times reported. Babin co-sponsored a House bill to strike down these safety regulations, which were written under former President Obama and set to take effect in March. Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt has delayed the rules’ implementation twice this year, and they won’t apply until February 2019, if at all.

Babin’s office did not return requests for comment.

Candidates Support Praise Benefits Of Regulation

Geologist Jon Powell and fellow Democratic candidate Dayna Steele, a well known former rock radio host, plan to use Babin’s role in opposing the chemical safety standards against him. Steele told IBT that she “absolutely” supports instating the chemical safety rules that Babin and Arkema successfully delayed.

“Everyone frames [chemical safety rules] as, ‘Ooh it’s a scary regulation.’ Regulations are protections put in place to protect people,” said Steele, who worked as a crisis communications consultant for some chemical plants in the area. “People can now see what we’ve been trying to say all along… It appears that a lot of the regulations maybe could have prevented [the Arkema explosions] from happening.”

These regulations have other benefits, too, Powell said. “The term regulation always seems to have ‘job-killing’ in front of it. But it’s quite the opposite: they’re job-creating regulations… The truth of it is, when companies have to install environmental protection they have to purchase it, install it, maintain it and audit it. It all creates jobs.”

The cost of refining crude oil into gasoline is about 16 percent of the total cost of standard gasoline, said Powell. Only a fraction of that amount — around 5 cents per gallon — goes towards environmental protection, he said.

But Arkema, the American Chemical Council lobbying group and many other chemical and oil companies have come out against increased safety measures at their plants. Powell speculated about the source of the opposition in a September 7 op-ed in the Texas Tribune.

“A basic function of government is to protect us. Ask yourself if laws and regulations that were in place before Harvey struck made the situation better or worse. Who advocated for those bad policies? Was it the people who have a financial incentive to not spend the necessary funds for protection and their bought-and-paid-for lawmakers?”

RTX3DFSD An oil tank damaged by Hurricane Harvey is seen near Seadrift, Texas, August 26, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Steele decided to run for office after the 2016 elections, feeling “stunned each and every day on everything from health care to education to relaxed regulations to DACA.”

“Global warming — let’s call it what it is. Climate change is very real…Science is fact. I don’t care if you don’t like it,” said Steele, who is married to a rocket scientist.

Powell, too, is focusing on Babin’s environmental record. “Babin has voted against this so-called [Waters of the United States] regulation that…regulates contamination of runoff from privately owned lands,” said Powell. “But chemicals are in the water…and they don’t understand property boundaries.

“When plants not required to operate safely they push cost of consequences of their unsafe choices onto the taxpayer,” said Powell. “Babin and his cohorts either don’t realize that or they’ve been bought by the lobbying and campaign contributions.”

Fossil Fuel Funds In Politics

The oil and gas industry has been kind to Babin, having donated nearly $115,000 to his federal campaigns since 2014, his first Congressional race. In just the 2016 election cycle, he received over $40,000 from the political action committees of oil and gas companies including Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton and Valero Energy. Arkema, the owner of the exploding chemical plant in his district, gave Babin $3,000 over the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

In 2018, Democrats are looking to take advantage of an unpopular president, a chaotic White House and a GOP-led Congress that has failed to pass any significant legislation. 23 congressional districts held by Republicans went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general for president. But Democrats are split on how to win back the House: Centrist super PACs have appeared, supporting a “big tent” party and looking to elect conservative Democrats in areas that usually vote GOP, while progressive organizations such as Our Revolution and Justice Democrats are backing leftist candidates. Meanwhile, Democratic senators are lining up behind Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all bill, which he plans to introduce on Wednesday.

In a flood-damaged district, though, local issues are paramount, Powell has said.

“I’m hoping that people will see that Babin has brought nothing to the district,” Powell said. “People don’t really care about who goes to what bathroom or spending a bunch of money on a wall on the Mexican border.”

“With floodwaters still flowing in parts of Texas, and Hurricane Irma eyeing the U.S. mainland, the current political talk is about tax cuts for the wealthy or the residency status of nearly 800,000 children and young adults,” wrote Powell on September 7. “Lowering the taxes on the highest earners does nothing to solve the problems so many people face in Southeast Texas.”