Voters in El Paso resoundingly rejected a ballot proposition that would have set the city on the path to 100 percent renewable energy and explored municipalization of the local electric utility.
Sunrise El Paso, the local climate justice organization behind the proposition, bet on a grassroots, people-powered campaign to achieve ambitious climate action in Texas’ hostile political climate. But opponents spent more than $1 million to defeat Proposition K, including $500,000 from Consumer Energy Alliance, which represents fossil fuel and energy companies. The opposition campaign also included the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, El Paso Electric and Marathon Petroleum
At the ballot box, 81 percent of voters rejected the proposition. Prop K’s defeat shows that even in local elections, progressive climate campaigns face an uphill battle against fossil fuel interests.
But the urgency of local climate action in Texas remains. While the debate over Proposition K raged in El Paso, lawmakers in Austin advanced legislation that would create new incentives to build natural gas power plants and stifle renewable energy projects.
“We were up against the full force of the fossil fuel industry,” said Sunrise El Paso’s Dominic Chacon. “As well as the power that they have through their donations over elected officials.”
Sunrise El Paso partnered with the statewide advocacy group Ground Game Texas on the campaign. Ground Game Texas also backed Proposition A in San Antonio, which would have decriminalized abortion and marijuana. It, too, was defeated on Saturday.
Opponents of Proposition K said that it was pushed by outside interest groups and the vote indicates the will of El Pasoans.
“I am hopeful last night’s crushing defeat in two major Texas cities sent a message to Ground Game Texas that our communities are not as easily swindled as they had hoped,” Andrea Hutchins, CEO of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said on Sunday.
Opposition Campaign Attracts Over $1 Million
Sunrise El Paso drafted the Climate Charter, a 16-section document that would have established a goal of 80 percent clean, renewable energy in El Paso by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. The charter would also have banned water sales for fossil fuel industry activities outside city limits and required the city to “employ all available efforts” to convert El Paso Electric to municipal ownership.
El Paso, a city of 700,000 people in the northern Chihuahuan Desert, is threatened by extreme heat and water scarcity as the climate continues to change. The city currently has no climate action plan but has recently employed consultants to that end.
After collecting 39,000 signatures during the spring of 2022, Sunrise El Paso submitted the proposition to the City of El Paso and it was added to the ballot in early 2023. Then the opposition campaign began in earnest.
The Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study by Points Consulting of Moscow, Idaho, that found the charter would cost El Paso billions of dollars and kill nearly half the city’s jobs. Energy economists from the University of Texas, Austin debunked these claims, which they said overlooked the benefits of a transition to renewables and were based on faulty assumptions.
That didn’t stop Political Action Committees opposed to Proposition K from repeating the study’s claims in mailers, billboards and television ads that blanketed El Paso in the weeks leading up to the vote. The Chamber of Commerce backed the El Pasoans for Prosperity PAC, which reported $200,000 in donations from El Paso Electric and another $150,000 from Marathon Petroleum, an Ohio-based company that owns an oil refinery in El Paso.
The Consumer Energy Alliance formed an eponymous PAC and contributed $548,250. CEA, the public-facing side of HBW Resources, a Houston-based lobbying firm, includes Shell USA and Occidental Petroleum Corp. among its members. According to an interview with a local business journal, CEA’s Southwest director, Matthew Gonzales, lived for a month in a downtown El Paso hotel while leading the organization’s campaign against Proposition K.
Americans for Prosperity/The Libre Initiative formed a third PAC. Americans for Prosperity is a libertarian conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers. All told, these PACs reported more than $1 million in contributions to fight Prop K.
Ground Game Texas also formed a PAC to support the proposition. To date, the organization has reported $41,000 in contributions. The national Sunrise Movement also contributed unspecified amounts to the Sunrise El Paso climate charter campaign. According to El Paso Matters, Ground Game Texas received an additional $3,100 for the campaign in small donations from 78 residents of El Paso.
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Chacon said the reach of the opposition campaign made it difficult for the climate charter’s message to break through to voters. “We would door knock, and the first thing people would say is, ‘You want to take my gas stove,’” he said. (Some opponents of the climate charter falsely stated the measure would ban gas stoves in El Paso.) “We would really have to break it down,” he said.
“It was an eye-opening experience for the group to see just how easily that misinformation can taint everything,” he said.
Petition Signers Didn’t Turn Out to Vote
Proposition K garnered several endorsements late in the campaign that proponents hoped would motivate voters. Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman, gubernatorial candidate and El Paso resident, endorsed the proposition in an op-ed on April 29.
El Paso has had consistently low voter turnout—32 percent in November 2022—but Sunrise El Paso was counting on turning out young voters, who are more likely to support action on climate change and had signed the charter petition at high rates. With no city or state-wide races on the ballot, the charter propositions were the biggest draw for the May 6 election.
Demographics reported during early voting, from April 24 to May 2, spelled trouble for Prop K, with older voters turning out in much higher numbers than younger El Pasoans. When the results came in on Saturday night, there was no nail biting: Only 11 percent of eligible voters turned out and Prop K lost by a wide margin.
Out of 49,800 voters, only 9,190 had voted in favor of Proposition K. The final results showed more than 81 percent of voters rejected the measure.
El Paso Electric CEO Kelly Tomblin was among those celebrating the results. “We want to thank the voters who cast their ballot in this election that was so important to the people of El Paso,” she said in a statement.
“The results show that a vast majority of El Pasoans believe Proposition K was the wrong path to move the city towards a clean energy future,” said CEA’s Gonzales.
The results beg the question of why so few of the 39,000 people who signed the petition in support of the climate charter turned out to vote for it. Chacon said that many of the young people who signed the petition may not be identified in databases of likely voters that the group relied on for door knocking and other get-out-the-vote strategies. Chacon said younger voters are also more likely to rent instead of own their homes, so it was more difficult to reach them at a permanent address.
Ground Game Texas’s other high profile campaign this election cycle, the San Antonio Justice Charter, was opposed by 74 percent of voters. The grassroots petition-based model that Ground Game Texas relies on has had some success in smaller Texas cities, but well-funded opposition campaigns in El Paso and San Antonio defeated both progressive ballot measures.
“While today’s result in El Paso is disappointing, the campaign to pass the El Paso Climate Charter was an unprecedented success story,” said Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, in a statement.
Proposition K was voted down as the Texas Legislature moves to limit the ability of municipalities to craft their own policies. House Bill 2127, which has been voted out of committee, would prohibit cities and counties from passing regulations that exceed state laws in areas including labor, agriculture and natural resources. Meanwhile, a bill restricting future climate charters, House Bill 4930 and its senate counterpart, have both passed out of committee. The bills would require municipalities to receive approval of a climate charter from “the appropriate state agency with proper jurisdiction to propose a climate charter for a municipality.” Because Texas does not have any state agency charged with climate action, it is unclear how the law would be implemented if passed.
But Chacon remained optimistic that Proposition K was the beginning of a change in El Paso. He said the campaign pushed conversations of climate change that had been stagnant in the border city. “When will we transition to solar? What is the better plan, if not this one?” he asked. “We’re really proud of provoking that conversation and sparking it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said incorrectly in the headline that the climate resolution in El Paso had been voted down after oil and gas interests poured more than $1 million into opposition. All opposition groups spent more than $1 million to help defeat Proposition K, not just oil and gas interests.