EL PASO—For the first time, Texas voters have the chance to write climate action into a city charter.
Activists from Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game Texas have written their own climate charter with aggressive renewable energy targets and collected enough signatures to have it placed before voters as a ballot proposition in the May 6 election.
El Paso, existentially threatened by climate change and plagued by unsafe levels of air pollution from vehicles and industry, has no climate action plan.
But business interests with ties to the state’s powerful oil and gas industry have mounted a ferocious opposition campaign to Proposition K. The El Paso Chamber of Commerce and regional electric utility, El Paso Electric, threatened by “municipalization” under the ballot measure, are blizzarding the town—nicknamed the Sun City—with leaflets claiming the ballot measure will cost El Paso $32 billion and kill nearly half of the city’s jobs.
Energy economists from the University of Texas, Austin say these claims are overblown, even “ludicrous,” and overlook the benefits of a transition to renewables. Local solar professionals argue transitioning to renewables will grow El Paso’s economy.
But Prop K faces long odds, and the debate exposes the barriers to achieving ambitious climate action, even in reliably Democratic cities like El Paso. “We’re already paying the cost of climate change,” said Ana Fuentes Zueck of Sunrise El Paso, a local hub of the national youth climate non-profit Sunrise Movement. “We’re paying the cost in increasing electricity rates every year. We’re physically paying the cost of poor health because of the pollution in El Paso.”
El Paso Chamber of Commerce CEO Andrea Hutchins dismissed the activists. “I think it’s not honest to tell people that this is for a better El Paso and green jobs are going to fall from the sky,” she said. “This is going to cost El Paso money.”
A Green New Deal for El Paso
El Paso sits across the Rio Grande from its city sister in Mexico, Juárez. On the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, the city of 700,000 averages less than nine inches of annual rainfall. A prolonged drought has cut into El Paso’s share of water from the river, forcing the water utility to seek other sources like desalination.
Since the 1980s, the city has averaged more than 20 days of triple-digit heat a year. It’s only getting hotter—since 2010 El Paso averaged more than 30 triple-digit days a year. According to a report from the state climatologist, temperatures have increased faster in El Paso than all other Texas counties except for one. The report predicted that by 2036, temperatures will be 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average for 1950-1999.
The border community has long been buffeted by environmental injustice. Eight in 10 El Paso residents are Hispanic and one in five live in poverty. The American Lung Association consistently ranks El Paso/Las Cruces, New Mexico as one of the worst metro areas for ozone pollution. Last year, El Paso had 40 unhealthy ozone days, when children and the elderly were warned against outdoor activity.
While vehicle emissions are the largest single contributor, the two largest industrial contributors to air pollution are El Paso Electric’s Newman natural gas plant and the Marathon Petroleum Refinery.
Miguel Escoto grew up in El Paso. He founded Sunrise El Paso in 2019 and works as a campaigner at Earthworks, focused on the climate impacts of oil and gas drilling in the Permian Basin, some 200 miles east. Sunrise El Paso’s first campaign was opposing—ultimately unsuccessfully—the purchase of El Paso Electric by the J.P. Morgan Chase-backed Infrastructure Investments Fund.
When El Paso Electric moved to replace a 228-megawatt natural gas unit at the Newman plant, Sunrise El Paso organized nearby residents to oppose the project. The utility gets less than 3 percent of its energy from solar sources.
Regulators in neighboring New Mexico, which El Paso Electric also serves, rejected the project under their clean energy standards for utilities. But Texas, which has no such standards or statewide climate plans for a transition to renewable power, approved the upgrades. With the replacement unit, El Paso Electric will now keep the gas plant online until the 2060s.
In hearings before Texas regulators, a group of residents in nearby Chaparral, New Mexico opposed the plant because of its air pollution impacts. After El Paso Electric settled with the residents, they offered to use the money as the seed of a new project: the climate charter.
As a home rule city in Texas, El Paso residents can petition for charter amendments to be added to the ballot. Sunrise El Paso partnered with Ground Game Texas, an Austin organization that advances progressive causes through charter campaigns.
The two organizations eventually hired 11 canvassers, in addition to organizing dozens of volunteers. They turned in 39,000 signatures to El Paso’s city clerk in July 2022 and got Proposition K added to the ballot earlier this year.
The document Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game drafted reads like a Green New Deal for El Paso. With 16 sections, the climate charter clocks in at over 2,500 words. It would establish a goal of 80 percent clean, renewable energy in El Paso by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045, ban water sales for fossil fuel industry activities outside city limits, and require the city to “employ all available efforts” to convert El Paso Electric to municipal ownership.
Sunrise El Paso contends that El Paso Electric’s goals are not enough to ensure El Paso transitions to clean, renewable energy. “We’re counting on the goodwill of a monopolized company owned by JPMorgan Chase to turn off their infrastructure when they’re saying that they’re going to,” said Fuentes Zueck. “The difference is that our goals are real and enforceable.”
‘Worst Idea Ever?’
On March 7, the El Paso Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to Proposition K. The Chamber cited a report the organization commissioned from Points Consulting of Moscow, Idaho. The firm reported that the ballot measure would lead to a loss of $9.2 billion in business earnings, 170,000 jobs and an overall contraction of the city’s economy by 40 percent.
The Chamber’s Board of Directors includes El Paso Electric CEO Kelly Tomblin and a representative from the Texas Gas Service.
The findings were soon repeated in TV ads, mailers and text messages across the city. “Expect your taxes to double,” one mailer read. “Prop K would cost $32.8 billion.” “Will cut police, fire, and city services.” “Worst idea ever?” another ad read, with photos of the Hidenberg disaster and the Ford Pinto explosion.
Chamber of Commerce staff registered a Political Action Committee, and El Paso Electric promptly donated $50,000. To fight Prop K, the Chamber hired Austin political consulting firm Murphy Nasica, whose recent clients include Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Republican Party of Texas.
Attacks on Prop K rained down. Marathon Petroleum paid for a “Vote No El Paso” website referring to the Points Consulting report. The El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce made handouts citing the report and falsely claiming El Pasoans would be forced to remove their gas stoves. Texas Gas Service emailed its El Paso customers, encouraging them to register to vote. Marathon, the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Texas Gas Service declined to comment for this article.
National organizations backed by fossil fuel companies joined the fray, including the Consumer Energy Alliance, whose members include the Texas Oil & Gas Association, Shell USA and Occidental Petroleum Corp., and Citizens Against Government Waste, whose staff has argued that the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is “definitely not settled.”
Hutchins, the chamber’s CEO, also said Prop K’s lack of specific implementation plans would expose the city to lawsuits. “I think to have it so unclear and so vague was really and truly irresponsible,” she said. “If this ends up passing and going to court, it will cost El Paso millions of dollars in court battles.”
‘Ludicrous’ and ‘Preposterous’
Joshua Rhodes, a Webber Energy Group research scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, called the assumptions underlying the Points Consulting report “ludicrous” and “preposterous” after he and his colleagues at Ideasmiths LLC published a critique of the document.
“I don’t normally disparage other consultant studies, because I know how hard it is to do these,” Rhodes said. “But this one is just particularly bad. It can’t stand to be used.”
The Points report assumed that El Paso would not be able to meet the charter’s renewable energy targets and therefore the city’s overall energy supply would decline by more than 70 percent. Prop K defines “clean, renewable energy” to include solar, wind energy, geothermal, hydroelectric and green hydrogen. But the Points report only included solar in its analysis.
Nor did Points Consulting contemplate El Paso purchasing renewable energy from other utilities. Instead, the report assumed, the utility would turn out the lights when it ran out of power. The report’s job loss and economic impacts calculations all derive from these baseline assumptions.
The Ideasmiths LLC memo did not take a position on the proposition, but referenced El Paso Electric’s own modeling to explore various pathways for El Paso to reach carbon free energy generation. The utility committed itself in 2020 to 80 percent carbon-free energy by 2035 and “the pursuit of” 100 percent decarbonization by 2045. As of 2022, the utility’s energy generation came from less than 3 percent solar, 39 percent natural gas, 44 percent nuclear and 13 percent other purchased power.
Ideasmiths found multiple pathways to meet these goals that would also meet anticipated future energy load. The memo states El Paso Electric’s modeling is “generally aligned” with the renewable energy goals in Proposition K for 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
Brian Points, of Points Consulting, defended his report’s findings that El Paso’s economy would grind to a halt under Prop K. El Paso Electric is “permitting a lot of use of fossil fuels that can be mitigated in some fashion,” Points said. “But that’s clearly not how the climate charter looks at it.”
The main distinction between El Paso Electric’s goals and Proposition K’s is the former includes nuclear, carbon capture technologies and hydrogen produced from natural gas. Meeting Prop K’s goals would require rapidly transitioning from nuclear and natural gas to solar, purchased wind energy and battery storage. Any approach to 100 percent percent renewable energy would also have to include steps to reduce peak energy demand and implement energy efficiency.
Ideasmiths suggests El Paso could use incentives and marketing strategies to encourage greater rooftop solar use, which would reduce demand on the electrical grid. Solar professionals in El Paso say El Paso Electric stands in the way of rooftop solar because the utility requires residents to pay a monthly minimum bill of $30.
Jessica Christianson, the utility’s vice president of sustainability and energy solutions, disagreed. “We really see that (minimum bill) as ensuring that all customers are paying their fair share for the upkeep of the infrastructure that they still rely on at the end of the day,” she said.
Christianson said the utility has a “clear roadmap” to reach 80 percent carbon free energy by 2035, relying on renewables and the existing nuclear portfolio. The utility has 700 megawatts of additional solar generation planned by 2025, more than doubling the current share of solar.
Christianson said that just because the utility has gas plants scheduled to be online for decades “doesn’t mean they’re operating all day, every day.” Utility spokespeople declined to respond to questions about Proposition K or the Points Consulting report.
The City’s Analysis: Prop K Would Raise Property Taxes by a Penny
While El Paso does not yet have a climate action plan in place, the city recently initiated its own climate planning process. In fall 2021, the council directed staff to develop and implement a comprehensive climate action plan. The city placed a proposition on the November 2022 ballot for $5 million to create an Office of Climate and Sustainability and pay consultants to begin a climate action plan. The proposition passed by less than 1 percent of the vote, and the office was formed.
In the lead-up to the charter vote, by law the city had to publish a financial impact statement on Proposition K. An analysis conducted by Yearout Energy for the city estimated the total cost of its provisions that could be budgeted at this time at $154.99 million, or $4.12 million a year.
City staff hosted information sessions around El Paso to present the proposed charter amendments. City communications manager Laura Cruz-Acosta explained the financial impact breaks down to a penny increase on the city property tax rate, or about $20 a year for a house valued at $180,000.
City staff cannot change charter language. However, the charter does include a severability clause that would strike any provisions if they are deemed illegal. If the charter is adopted, the City Council would be responsible for interpreting it and crafting specific city policies. Cruz-Acosta said the Council would “make decisions on what action to take based on legal advice.”
One section that has caused consternation states that El Paso would ban selling water to fossil fuel companies outside city limits.
Sunrise El Paso members say the provision is to prevent El Paso from selling water to oil and gas companies in the Permian Basin. El Paso Water spokesperson Denise Parra said the utility has never sold water to the Permian Basin and that the transportation costs would be “extremely high.” However, Parra said the ban would apply to water sold to El Paso Electric’s Montana Avenue power station.
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Residents have also raised concerns about the provision to “employ all available efforts” to convert El Paso Electric into a municipal utility. The utility’s service area covers a wide swath of west Texas and southern New Mexico outside El Paso city limits, so a municipal utility would have to be carved out of this larger area. Yearout Energy estimated a feasibility study for buying El Paso Electric would take 8 to 12 years and cost $12 million. The Infrastructure Investment Fund bought the utility for $4.3 billion in 2020. The utility reported profits of $146 million in 2021.
In April, a Monday night information session ran for over two hours at a police annex in the city’s Northeast. Cruz-Acosta quickly ran out of the 50 photocopies she had made of the proposed amendments. Residents asked how the charter would impact their taxes, why they hadn’t heard about it earlier and how municipalization would impact utility workers.
Often, the only answer Cruz-Acosta could give was, “I don’t know.”
Will the Sun City Become the Solar City?
Sam Silerio, the owner of Sunshine City Solar, sees Prop K as a step for the future of El Paso. Silerio thinks El Paso could be a leader in the renewable energy economy.
“I see the climate charter as beginning the conversation,” he said. “It’s putting climate change as a priority.”
Shelby Ruff, board president of the non-profit Eco El Paso, moved to El Paso after starting successful solar companies in Austin and San Antonio. Despite the year-round sunshine in El Paso, Ruff said the local renewable energy sector has failed to launch.
Ruff said the climate charter can spur new investment in El Paso. “We’re not saying save the environment and kill jobs, industry and kill El Paso,” Ruff said. “That’s absolutely insane. What we’re saying is, drive new businesses here.”
UT Austin’s Rhodes contended that El Paso could “very likely” become a hub for solar generation in the Western Interconnect and ERCOT grids or for export to Mexico. His memo suggests that under the domestic production provisions of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, solar panel manufacturing companies could locate in El Paso.
Several city council members have come out against Prop K, but Sunrise El Paso has also attracted endorsements, including former state senator José Rodríguez, county commissioner David Stout, the El Paso Democratic Party and the non-profit Public Citizen.
“I support the people, especially the youth, trying to safeguard their future through this initiative,” Stout said, warning there has been “misinformation” about Proposition K and voters shouldn’t “fall victim to fear mongering.”
Public Citizen’s endorsement pointed out the unique and sweeping implications of Prop K compared to other municipal climate plans in Texas, saying it “stands out because it would amend the city charter to include clear goals, directives, and, critically, funding.”
Ground Game formed a PAC to back Prop K, which has reported $41,000 in donations mostly from small donors across Texas and the country. The national Sunrise Movement has also supported the campaign. Fuentes Zueck and Escoto refuted claims from the opposition PAC that “Austin radicals” were behind Prop K. Sunrise El Paso’s members are from El Paso and they said financial support from state and national allies does not equate to outside influence.
The proposition undoubtedly faces long odds. The alleged sticker shock of Prop K is likely to discourage many voters. Rising property taxes and appraisal values have become a touchstone of local politics in recent years. The city’s $5 million proposition to fund climate planning passed by less than 1 percent, or fewer than 2,000 votes.
To succeed, Sunrise El Paso is counting on energizing young voters who typically turn out at low rates in El Paso. They have relied on phone banking, door knocking and social media campaigns to promote Prop K.
Early voting started last Monday and will continue until the May 6 election. The previous weekend, Sunrise El Paso set the goal of knocking on 2,000 doors, with the motto of “organized people can beat organized money.”
Whether or not Prop K passes, it has sparked an unprecedented debate about climate action in El Paso. Veronica Carbajal, an environmental lawyer and 2020 candidate for mayor, noted in a PBS El Paso interview, “I think I’ve heard more about climate change in the last month than in the last 20 years.”
Sunrise El Paso organizers say the ballot initiative is an important accomplishment in Texas’ hostile political climate. “We’re being just bombarded with our government betraying us,” Fuentes Zueck said. “We are trying to do something. This should be a celebration, we should be very joyful that we got this on the ballot.”
There’s no denying youth activists in El Paso have turned up the heat on elected officials and the local tendrils of the fossil fuel economy.
“Now they’re scared. Now they see that this movement has won leverage,” Escoto said. “It’s not Sunrise El Paso versus the Chamber. It’s the 40,000 people that signed on to this.”