Update: On May 6, El Paso residents voted down Proposition K, a citizen-led grassroots petition to revise the city’s guiding document. 81% of voters rejected the climate charter, which would have municipalized the city’s utility service and created a plan for the creation of thousands of climate-friendly jobs, among other asks.
Voters in El Paso, Texas, have an opportunity to make history in May by approving a proposition that would center climate action.
The citizen-led climate petition, known as Proposition K, would edit the El Paso city charter and create a Climate Department. This long-awaited change in city policy has been championed by grassroots organizers as a way to address the myriad environmental, public health, civil rights, and climate threats residents are forced to contend with.
Over 80% of residents in El Paso identify as Latinx or Hispanic, and 20% of residents live at or below the federal poverty level. The West Texas town is a city plagued with environmental racism, said Christian Marquardt, a born and raised El Pasoan and communications coordinator for the El Paso Chapter of the Sunrise Movement, which wrote the climate charter. Climate injustices have become so normalized in the community that they’re no longer seen as objectionable, she explained. Marquardt described passing by a refinery in town or being able to see flares of a gas operation from the highway.
“We’ve normalized this narrative,” Marquardt said.
For a place like Texas, where the oil and gas industry maintains deep cultural, political, and economic ties at the municipal and statewide levels, the potential approval of the climate charter serves as a sharp rebuke to the status quo. It’s a necessary one, petitioners argue, given how the fossil fuel industry profits from resource extraction that protracts global climate change, all while fostering a boom and bust economy that fails to ensure economic security in the long term.
Proposition K is an exciting prospect, but a climate charter amendment has never before been approved. The region’s deeply rooted extractive industries also mean that, ahead of sending voters to the polls, organizers are tasked with the added challenge of providing a vision to residents of what a renewable climate future might look like.
Without an exact blueprint to follow, organizers hope that the El Paso Climate Charter becomes the standard bearer, allowing residents of other cities to see that this is an effort “that could be copied and pasted … and done in their own communities,” said Crystal Moran, co-founder of Sunrise El Paso, a chapter of the national Sunrise Movement.
Local climate initiatives and a rapidly approaching deadline
Across the country, at least 35 of the 50 largest cities have adopted local climate initiatives as of February 2022. Honolulu created an Office of Climate Change; Indianapolis created a Department of Sustainability; Pittsburgh appointed a city climate advisor; and St. Paul, Minnesota, now has a chief resilience officer. In most cities, the climate action plans hinge on establishing carbon neutral energy sources and creating plans for “green” jobs, as is the case in Los Angeles. Even major cities in Texas—including San Antonio, Austin, and Houston—have adopted plans to address climate change-causing emissions and mitigate climate impacts. Houston, a member city of the Climate Mayors association, a network that works to mobilize climate leadership at the local level, is one of the largest municipal purchasers of renewable energy in the country, with over 92% of city energy sourced from wind and solar generation.
Fifteen of the 50 largest cities in the country by population have not yet adopted climate action plans, including El Paso. However, a bond approved by El Paso voters in the November 2022 election did allocate $5 million for “green infrastructure, policy, and technology,” including flood mitigation plans, charging stations for electric vehicles, energy-efficient subsidies, tree planting, and bike path creation.
These approaches mirror the individualized climate plans proffered at the state and federal levels, including the Inflation Reduction Act, which put record-setting funds behind the generation of electric vehicles—a goal that the country will likely fall short of. Other federal plans, like the Justice40 initiative, allocate funding and resources for disinvested communities that are typically low income and majority BIPOC. There’s also work to transform the electric grid to support residents and businesses while the country weans off fossil fuels. Other climate mitigation efforts have been pledged by oil companies themselves, with Exxon pledging in 2021 to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from its operations in the Permian Basin by 2030. Some experts have expressed concern that these solutions, while positive developments, aren’t happening with enough urgency.
Speed isn’t the only problem; depth is also a factor. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says we have until 2030 to halt global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to scientists, what’s required isn’t a piecemeal set of so-called “green” policies but rather a systemic overhaul of the fossil fuel-based economy.
In addition to creating a Climate Department and appointing a climate director, Proposition K would require creating climate jobs, enacting policies encouraging the development of rooftop solar power generation, and achieving 80% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% renewable energy by 2045. It would also require completing a feasibility study for converting El Paso Electric to municipal ownership, weatherizing buildings and utilities, and prohibiting the city from selling water outside city limits to fossil fuel entities, namely in the nearby Permian Basin.
Water use in the Permian Basin for fossil fuel extraction has increased in the past 10 years, as has oil and gas production. In 2010, oil and gas operations consumed an average of 3,003 million gallons per year in Texas. That increased to 72,220 million gallons per year in 2019. For hydraulic fracturing alone, water use was 29 times higher in 2019 than it was in 2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. This water consumption increase occurred concurrently with growing drought and water scarcity in the region.
Denise Parra, a public affairs officer for El Paso Water, said in an email to Prism, “El Paso Water has never sold water to any fossil fuel extraction/fracking companies in the Permian Basin.” Nor has the utility ever been contacted by any Permian Basin fracking companies to sell water to them, she added.
“Free rein” in the Permian Basin
The Permian Basin is a region in West Texas made up of three sub-basins rich in hydrocarbons formed between 850 million and 1.3 billion years ago. Since the first commercial oil well was drilled in the basin in 1921, the region has become the largest producer of oil and gas in the country. If Texas were a country, it would be the fourth-highest crude oil producing country in the world, according to Tannya Benavides, the advocacy director for Commission Shift, an organization working to reform oil and gas oversight in the state.
Out in the basin, oil and gas companies enjoy “basically a free rein” to extract, transport, and emit fossil fuels to the benefit of the bottom line, said Michael Zavada, the chair of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Texas Permian Basin.
According to Zavada’s own research and data collection in the region, equipment required in the excavation and processing of gas and oil leaks methane regularly. Methane is 86 times more harmful in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to the warming of the planet that triggers environmental feedback loops known as climate change.
According to Sheila Serna, the climate science and policy director at the Rio Grande International Study Center, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) doesn’t even monitor greenhouse gasses like methane. Serna worked for TCEQ for five years as an inspector.
In the Permian Basin, there are immediate environmental impacts that don’t get the level of scrutiny they deserve, Zavada said. For instance, industry operations have increased the amount of barren land, he said, which can exacerbate the impacts of dust storms in the area. Companies also claim that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are proprietary knowledge, meaning water reinjected deep underground can be laden with toxins that don’t require disclosure or oversight. Zavada said he worries about illnesses related to groundwater pollution, for which there are no readily available solutions because industries are empowered to operate without transparency.
The other agency tasked with monitoring the actions of oil and gas companies is the Texas Railroad Commission, an oversight agency made up of elected officials that’s highly responsive to industry interests, Benavides said. Her organization found that two-thirds of campaign contributions for commissioners between 2015 and 2020 came from the oil and gas industry.
The lack of regulatory policy “reinforces that idea that deregulation is good and regulation is bad because it detracts business,” she said. “When you put that into context of the impacts on people, those are very real, where we have health issues in our communities.”
One of those is air pollution, which she said is affected by methane and other emissions that increase rates of asthma, emphysema, and even diabetes.
“Texas is an increasingly majority-minority state, and we know that the Hispanic and Black community are disproportionately impacted and at risk of having these kinds of comorbidities,” Benavides said.
There’s no language in the proposed climate charter that calls for TCEQ or the Railroad Commission to change its regulatory schemas, but voters’ approval would certainly upend the friendly relationship between industry and the agencies tasked with overseeing its operations. And while it’s not a regulatory document, the Climate Charter suggests that divesting from fossil fuels is a way of pushing back against corporate fossil fuel power.
Opponents of the proposition argued that its passage would lead to the loss of jobs and revenue for the city. They also scoff at the estimated $4.1 million annual cost of the department. But according to Marquardt, the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors includes individuals with ties to the fossil fuel industry, and they have vested interests in halting the climate charter.
Marquardt sees industry groups as “exploiting linguistic barriers,” illustrating the ways the environmental movement in El Paso coincides with a movement for economic justice and immigrant rights.
“A lot of our family members may be immigrants or primarily a Spanish speaker,” said Marquardt, noting that to survive poverty, many community members have to seek temporary jobs in the oil fields of the Permian Basin.
Not if, but when
The economic argument—that financial investment in climate mitigation and renewable energy is an unsound one—actually belies the economics of climate change itself. Experts note that it’s not a matter of if we’ll have to transition to renewable energy, but when, and that the longer we take, the more expensive this transition will be. In 2020, the federal government’s own Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a bipartisan market regulatory agency, reported that climate change itself is one of the greatest risks to the market.
“Over time, if significant action is not taken to check rising global average temperatures, climate change impacts could impair the productive capacity of the economy and undermine its ability to generate employment, income, and opportunity,” the first-of-its-kind report said. “Even under optimistic emissions-reduction scenarios, the United States, along with countries around the world, will have to continue to cope with some measure of climate change-related impacts.”
Even though Republican-led states are also leading in solar and wind production, Texas lawmakers have historically scapegoated renewable energy sources during climate events, with one commissioner blaming a 2021 blackout on wind turbines despite the fact that nearly twice the number of power outages came from natural gas, coal, and nuclear sources. Fossil fuel extraction is even responsible for rapidly growing sinkholes that gobble up homes and other property in Texas.
Despite these warnings, oil and gas production is increasing in the Permian Basin. By 2030, the region is expected to produce 7.86 million barrels of oil per day. Currently, the Permian Basin produces about 5.4 million barrels a day.
More than 165,000 people voted in El Paso’s last midterm election. Sunrise El Paso surpassed the required 20,000 unique signatures of eligible voters it needed to place Proposition K on the ballot, and it continues to organize to secure voter turnout and dispel misconceptions about the proposition. The election is May 6.