El Paso charter fight tests whether a Texas city will move away from fossil fuels
By Erin Douglas, The Texas Tribune
“El Paso charter fight tests whether a Texas city will move away from fossil fuels” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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In the westernmost outpost of a state still tightly embracing fossil fuels as climate change ravages the planet, El Paso citizens will soon decide if their city should take dramatic steps to wean itself from oil and gas.
El Pasoans will decide, in a special election this spring, the fate of an amendment to the city charter that would set aggressive renewable energy goals and overhaul city policy to make controlling carbon emissions a cornerstone of major city decisions.
Proposition K, known as the “climate charter,” has provoked fierce resistance and doomsday projections from business interests, spawning a bitter fight with local climate activists.
The fight has also become a testing ground for the national youth-led climate activist group Sunrise Movement, which has lent its support to the campaign and hopes that El Paso proves a model for enacting climate policies at the local level as global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions have stalled.
The proposition is the second climate proposal brought to El Paso voters in less than a year. In November, voters approved a proposition to create a city climate action plan, which compels the city to create renewable energy goals for its operations. The ballot measure included $5.2 million in bonds to do it.
Proposition K would reach beyond the city’s own operations, attempting to set clean energy goals for the entire local economy. It was born after the Chaparral Community Coalition, a neighborhood advocacy group, settled a dispute over a gas plant expansion in 2021. The group donated more than $100,000 of its settlement money to jumpstart a campaign to rewrite the city’s charter in favor of policies shifting El Paso’s economy away from fossil fuels.
Sunrise El Paso, the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, spearheaded the campaign and garnered almost 40,000 signatures to get Proposition K on the ballot. The city said it couldn’t verify the signatures in time for the November election, so voters will decide on May 6; early voting starts April 24.
The climate charter has been called “detrimental” and “irresponsible” by local business groups, which have claimed the policy is too vague and would open the door to banning everything from gas stoves to diesel trucks — although the proposal doesn’t address such consumer decisions at all, nor would it appear to create bans on the use of fossil fuels.
Instead, the proposition reads as a sort of climate manifesto, calling on the city of El Paso to reorganize its employees, create a new climate department and rethink local policy at all levels to cut greenhouse gas emissions and put the entire community on a path to an “environmentally sustainable future.”
“Fundamentally, this charter creates a process,” said Michael Siegel, political director and co-founder of Ground Game Texas, an Austin-based organization that backs progressive local campaigns and worked with Sunrise El Paso in writing the proposed climate charter. “It says that whenever there’s a major city decision, we’re going to consider the climate impact.”
The specific requirements: create climate impact statements for major city policies; study whether the city could take over its electric utility; stop selling water to fossil fuel companies outside of the city; and create renewable energy goals for electricity generation.
“The City of El Paso shall employ all available methods to require that energy used within the City is generated by clean renewable energy, with the goals of requiring 80% clean renewable energy by 2030 and 100% clean renewable energy by 2045,” the proposed charter states.
The renewable energy goals are among the more contentious parts of the proposal — generating alarm from business groups and Republican politicians. In a press conference hosted by the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales suggested the proposal would cause electricity bills to skyrocket and force widespread job losses. A video produced by the Hispanic chamber shows a woman attempting to turn the lights on only to realize that the electricity is out. She then attempts to pump gasoline but encounters an “OUT OF GAS” sign.
The dramatic characterizations rely on an economic analysis commissioned by the El Paso Chamber which made the striking claim that the climate charter, if implemented, would cut El Paso’s local economy by 41% and eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. The prediction, though, assumes the policy would ban fossil fuels altogether, from electricity generation to stoves and furnaces.
Brian Points, president of Points Consulting in Idaho and author of the analysis, called the climate charter “dramatic and extreme” in an interview with the Tribune and said he interpreted the language to be a “prohibition” of using fossil fuels.
Points also assumed the city would not use fossil fuels even if green energy isn’t feasible, provoking widespread electricity disruptions, he said.
“My job was to take the letter of this [policy] and play it out,” Points said. “It’s a bad idea to base policy on slogans and aspirations.”
Supporters of the climate charter say Points’ analysis mischaracterizes their proposal to reach its predictions of economic doom. The renewable energy goals included in the proposal appear limited to electricity generation, according to the language of the policy, and Sunrise organizers point out that those are goals, not bans.
“It’s a goal — that’s why we wrote ‘goals,’” said Miguel Escoto, a Sunrise El Paso organizer who helped author the climate charter. “This is not a rigid document.”
There’s another reason the charter uses the word “goals”: An outright ban on using fossil fuels could be illegal. State laws, including one passed in 2021, bar cities from banning gas as a fuel source in new subdivisions.
Escoto, who also works for Earthworks, an environmental group, called Points’ analysis a “hatchet job” and a gross misinterpretation of the proposal. Escoto views the attacks from business groups as a sign that fossil fuel interests feel threatened.
The El Paso Chamber said in a press release that the language of Proposition K is “rushed and unrealistic.”
“The passage of the Climate Charter … would bring our economy to a screeching halt,” the chamber wrote in a response to criticism of the economic analysis study.
Renewable energy currently makes up less than 5% of electricity generation in El Paso, according to El Paso Electric’s most recent corporate sustainability report.
The targets in the climate charter are based on El Paso Electric’s own stated goals to achieve 80% carbon-free energy by 2035, but the company’s goals substantially differ from the activists’ proposal.
El Paso Electric counts nuclear energy from its Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, which provides 45% of the utility’s electricity generation, in its definition of clean energy. It’s unclear whether the proposed climate charter would agree with that.
And El Paso Electric’s goal for 2045 is the “pursuit” of 100% decarbonization. In an interview, Jessica Christianson, vice president of sustainability and energy solutions for El Paso Electric, said the utility does not have a clear plan “penciled out” for how to achieve 100% clean energy by that time.
“We have some strategies, but we need some technologies to evolve and price points to [fall] to achieve that final 20%,” Christianson said. Carbon capture — an emerging technology that sucks carbon dioxide from polluting plants — would be included in the utility’s 2045 goal, she added.
But climate activists said the company’s sustainability advertisements mislead the public into believing the utility will generate 100% clean and renewable electricity by 2045 without highlighting the caveats.
“The biggest lie that fossil fuel companies want us to believe is that they’ve got it covered,” Escoto said. “We’re basing [the climate charter] off of what El Paso Electric is promising, but we’re making it bigger, and we’re making it actually based on policy.”
The climate charter would also require the city to explore taking over El Paso Electric, an idea that the private utility company strongly opposes. Christianson, of El Paso Electric, also said the company is concerned about the charter’s ban on selling municipal water to fossil fuel companies that operate outside of the city; some of the company’s plants operate outside city limits and use city water in their operations.
Climate activists want the utility to be more accountable to the public, which they argue is difficult while it’s privately held. In 2020, an infrastructure fund advised by J.P. Morgan Investment Management Inc. closed on an acquisition of the company in a multibillion-dollar deal that Sunrise El Paso opposed.
“Community members should be participating in the decision-making, not just the utility company,” said Christian Marquardt, another Sunrise organizer in El Paso. “[The charter] is a way of restoring that democratic power.”
City officials declined to comment on the practical implications of the charter ahead of the election, but Nicole Alderete-Ferrini, the City of El Paso’s climate and sustainability officer, said that she views the special election as a signal of the community’s commitment to advancing the conversation on climate change goals.
“I’m proud that we’re having this conversation in our community, because it doesn’t come from nowhere,” Alderete-Ferrini said. “It comes from 20 years of a lot of people working really hard to do everything we can to advance a healthy environment in the city of El Paso.”
City officials want to “set the example” for the private sector’s energy transition, she said. She anticipates the climate action plan, which will set emission reduction targets for city operations, will be finalized in April 2025.
Disclosure: El Paso Electric Company has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/27/el-paso-climate-change-referendum/.
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