Home News & Press Rhetoric intensifies on both sides of El Paso Climate Charter debate ahead of May 6 vote

Rhetoric intensifies on both sides of El Paso Climate Charter debate ahead of May 6 vote

by | May 3, 2023 | News & Press

May 1, 2023

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With the May 6 charter election just around the corner, rhetoric is heating up on both sides of the debate around the El Paso Climate Charter, easily the most contentious item on the coming ballot.

Opponents have gone on the offensive, sending out a mountain of mailers decrying the proposal as “irresponsible” and the “worst idea ever” and plastering the city with billboards splashed with the slogan “No Way on Prop K.”

Supporters, meanwhile, have gotten a boost of support from the El Paso County Democratic Party and a new study from University of Texas professors debunking much of the El Paso Chamber’s earlier economic feasibility study.

Further, climate activists have gone on the attack with an ethics complaint against City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, alleging he and other city officials have improperly used city resources to oppose the climate proposal.

Taken together, the latest salvoes have turned a simple charter election into a highly charged referendum over environmental politics versus economic growth ‒ and the will of El Paso voters versus the power of outside voices.

Among the earliest attacks on the proposed climate charter was the El Paso Chamber’s “El Paso Climate Charter Economic Impact Assessment,” which found that the proposal would cause El Paso’s economy to decrease by 40.8% and amount to billions in direct costs to taxpayers.

But a new report from IdeaSmiths LLC, an Austin-based environmental consulting firm established by UT professors in 2013, found that the “economic impact assessment commissioned by the El Paso Chamber … makes fundamentally flawed assumptions about (the) scope of the (climate charter) and energy availability, which in turn drives their projections for massive economic disruption.”

Among the key findings in the report, titled “Decarbonization in the El Paso Region: A Commentary on Technical and Economic Feasibility,” are:

  • The predictions of economic collapse contained in earlier studies stem from the assumption that El Paso would lose over 70% of its energy by 2045, which the report states is “egregious and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how energy systems work, particularly in Texas.”
  • El Paso Electric’s own modeling has indicated that achieving 100% clean energy by 2045 is “entirely possible and completely within the bound of reality” and that those goals could be achieved while also meeting area demand.
  • El Paso could position itself to be a major hub for carbon-free energy, manufacturing and support for these industries, as well as play a larger role in the global economy as more regions look for low-carbon or carbon-neutral goods.
  • A separate UT study found an array of net-zero pathways for Texas by 2050, with each resulting in higher levels of gross domestic product and associated employment relative to a baseline business-as-usual case of not following a net-zero pathway in El Paso.
  • All the forecast expansion in the renewable sector ‒ including power supplies, energy storage, hydrogen and transmission ‒ is expected to offset fossil fuel industry job losses.

The study also notes that, despite chamber assertions to the contrary, homes and businesses would not be forced to convert appliances from gas to electric.

“The Chamber’s study also assumes that every home and business in El Paso would have to transition all end-uses of energy, such as heating and transportation, to electricity,” the IdeaSmiths report states. “However, the ordinance only applies to energy used by the municipal city government and thus its modeling of the entire region is flawed.”

Further, the report contested the chamber assertion that El Paso’s energy supply would be decimated as a result of the climate charter, stating that “it hinges on another assumption that El Paso could only manage to build 12 MW (megawatts) of solar per year and does not buy power from elsewhere.”

“This assumes that El Paso would only be able to build 288 MW of solar between now and 2045 to replace other energy sources,” the report states, adding later that “the rest of Texas is already scheduled to build over 8,000 MW per year over the next three years, including about 1,800 MW in neighboring counties.”

Chamber stands by economic impact assessment

While the IdeaSmiths report appears damning to the chamber’s earlier economic assessment, El Paso Chamber President Andrea Hutchins said her group is standing by its own study, conducted by Points Consulting in Moscow, Idaho.

“The Chamber stands by the analysis we commissioned,” Hutchins said in an email. “While the newly released IdeaSmiths report seems critical of Points Consulting, it does not offer an affirmative argument in favor of the climate charter and is based on faulty assumptions on its own right …. We appreciate that an unnamed entity commissioned the report, but it is faulty, lacks data, and makes liberal interpretation of the climate charter at its onset, while faulting the Chamber for making assumptions based on the direct language of the eight-page charter.”

A key issue for Hutchins is the report’s assertion that El Paso Electric modeling finds “multiple pathways” to clean energy ‒ on one hand, the climate charter often goes beyond simple clean energy, Hutchins said, and on the other hand, the utility’s plans might be altered due to the threat of a city takeover.

“Clean energy is not a tenet of the charter ‒ 100% renewable is,” Hutchins said. “The authors make the mistake of using the two interchangeably throughout this study, making the entire thing void. Further, the authors continue to make the assumption that (El Paso Electric’s) current plans are not put on pause in order to fight municipalization in court.”

“We have listed, time and time again, our opposition to the potential financialimpacts on utilities and local businesses,” she continued. “While the new report seems cavalier that our concerns are exaggerated, I wonder if they would feel comfortable speaking directly to members whose livelihoods could be on the line. Until that kind of certainty, we feel comfortable in arguing against charter passage.”

Who are the groups behind the climate charter debate?

A number of groups, both from El Paso and beyond, have a stake and a voice in the ongoing climate charter debate.

On one hand, Sunrise El Paso and the Austin-based Ground Game Texas have led the charge in bringing the proposal before voters with an eye toward seeing it approved. On the other, the El Paso Chamber and the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have been the loudest opponents of the measure.

But advocates have a friend in Eco El Paso, a local nonprofit focused on sustainability that has consistently rallied support for the climate charter, while opponents have received support from the Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) and a chamber-created PAC, El Pasoans for Prosperity, which according to recent campaign finance reports initially received $50,000 on March 27 from El Paso Electric.

El Pasoans for Prosperity and CEA are the groups behind the pile of anti-Proposition K mailers turning up in mailboxes across the city.

According to a second round of campaign finance reports filed recently, the chamber’s PAC received the following contributions:

  • $35,611.04 from the Austin-based Texas Realtors Issues PAC on April 4 and another $62,471 only 10 days later.
  • $10,000 from the El Paso Association of Contractors.
  • $100,000 more from El Paso Electric on April 5 and an additional $50,000 on April 25.
  • $21,000 from Jobe Materials.
  • $150,000 from Marathon Petroleum Corp.
  • $10,000 from Pizza Properties Inc.
  • $10,000 from Tropicana Building Corp.

By comparison, all of the monetary contributions made to Ground Game Texas in support of the climate charter came from individual donors, with the largest coming in at $500 and some as low as only $1.

For Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, his group’s involvement in the El Paso Climate Charter push is a natural part of the organization’s statewide efforts to enact progressive legislation.

“We collaborated with El Paso organizers to draft the climate charter and come up with the campaign strategy,” Siegel said. “Basically, Ground Game is a statewide organization focused on increasing voter turnout … through progressive campaigns.”

Siegel said Ground Game has been in 10 cities across Texas advocating for a variety of policies, from reforming marijuana laws to increasing the minimum wage.

“We think these local campaigns are a way to engage people who think their vote doesn’t matter,” he said, “who think politics don’t matter.”

But his group’s involvement does not take away from the local nature of the climate charter push, he said, noting that it’s inclusion on the upcoming ballot is because of the nearly 40,000 El Pasoans who signed the original petition.

“Even with outside folks like myself supporting the Sunrise organizers, this has been a campaign led by the people of El Paso,” Siegel said. “Whether you talk about the people that gathered signatures – they did it at churches, they did it at community meetings, farmers’ markets, UTEP – this was gathered and put on the ballot by the people.

“With our campaign, there’s no way to argue this hasn’t been promoted by the people,” he said, adding that the “outside agitators” in this debate are the wealthy interests attached to the fossil fuel industry that are pouring money into the campaign against the charter.

But the so-called “outside agitators” in this case – Consumer Energy Alliance – see their role as essentially the same.

“CEA got involved because Proposition K has the potential to set a terrible precedent for energy policies across the country,” CEA Southwest Executive Director Matthew Gonzales said in an email. “As a Texas-based national advocate for sensible energy and environmental policies, we could not stand by and watch El Paso’s families and small businesses get a $9 billion minimum tax hike, perpetually higher energy bills and economic ruin foisted on them.”

While Gonzales did not share details on how much his group has spent on its anti-climate charter campaign, campaign finance reports show the group has spent more than half a million dollars fighting the proposed El Paso Climate Charter.

“CEA’s mission is to educate voters, elected leaders and the public about smart energy policies,” Gonzales said. “CEA is involved in El Paso strictly to arm its voters with the facts about Prop K so they can exercise their democratic rights at the ballot box for themselves.”

For his part, Eco El Paso Executive Director Joshua Blaine Simmons agreed with Siegel, saying the infusion of outside support helped attract attention for the climate charter and environmental issues in general, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

“The proponents of the El Paso Climate Charter who have provided funding from outside our region have driven attention to our region unlike much any have experienced before,” Simmons said in an email. “The environmental struggles of our region have long been observed locally but possibly not as wide until recent and only now gain attention whereas it has been politically weaponized.”

“As far as the related opposition groups from outside our region funding the misinformation, (that) demonstrates that the fossil fuel interests do have their eye on our region and mean to ensure it stays a complacent component in their profit portfolio,” he continued. “Everything from the El Paso Chamber importing ‘consultants’ for their false report to the significant amount contributed by entities such as the Consumer Energy Alliance to dissuade and further confuse voters about renewable energy, their influence has caused damage beyond their advocating for a ‘no’ vote on Prop K but also convinced the public, if the proposition fails, for continued suffering under the status quo.”

Texas Legislature looks to stop climate charter before it begins

While debate over the El Paso Climate Charter has reached a fever pitch in the Sun City, lawmakers in Austin are also taking note with a handful of Republican-sponsored bills aimed at shutting down municipal climate action.

The Texas House of Representatives recently approved HB 2127, known as the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act, from state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, which is mirrored by SB 814, which was left pending in committee in early April.

Burrows’ bill seeks to address what it calls a “patchwork of regulations that apply inconsistently across (the) state” by “returning sovereign regulatory power to the state” and prohibiting municipalities from adopting certain laws or ordinances.

While Burrows’ offering does not clearly express an effort to thwart the adoption of municipal climate policies, other bills do. HB 4930 from state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, expressly states that a “municipality or charter commission must receive approval on a climate charter from the appropriate state agency with proper jurisdiction to propose a climate charter for a municipality or an amendment to a municipality’s climate charter.”

Craddick’s bill, which is mirrored by SB 1860, was recently greenlighted by the House State Affairs Committee, clearing the way for it to be taken up by the full House in the coming days, though it is unlikely that the bill will gain final passage in the waning days of the 88th Legislative Session.

A third set of bills, HB 2374 and its Senate companion, SB 1017, state that a county, municipality or other “political subdivision may not adopt or enforce an ordinance, order, regulation, or similar measure that limits access to an energy source or that results in the effective prohibition of infrastructure that is necessary to provide access to a specific energy source, including a wholesaler, retailer, energy producer, or related infrastructure, including a retail service station.”

While state Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, has not yet had an opportunity to weigh in on HB 4930, representatives from her office stated that she voted against the other two House proposals.

“Rep. Ortega supports the ability of local governments and voters to make the best decisions for their own communities,” her office said in an email, “without state involvement or pre-emption.”

El Paso Democrats, others announce support for Proposition K

Despite the outcry of opposition to the proposed climate charter, advocates recently received endorsements from a handful of prominent El Paso organizations, including the El Paso County Democratic Party and the National Nurses Organizing Committee-Texas/National Nurses United.

El Paso County Democratic Party Chair Michael Apodaca said the local Democratic Party’s executive committee adopted a resolution last September in support of the El Paso Climate Charter.

“As Democrats, we do believe that climate (change) is a real issue and this proposition will ensure that our city will be ahead of the curve battling climate change and using our assets, such as the sun, to our advantage,” Apodaca said in a text message. “(We) cannot discount the fact that almost 40,000 voters signed on to this petition that was organized by young organizers who are concerned for our planet.”

The nurses union’s support stems from the fact that the El Paso-Las Cruces area ranks 14th in the country for ozone emissions, according to a study from the American Lung Association.

“As registered nurses, we see the harmful effects of pollution and environmental degradation firsthand at the hospital,” said Idali Cooper, a nurses union representative and a nurse at Providence Memorial Hospital. “We regularly see patients come in with respiratory illnesses directly tied to harmful pollution, inadequate clean water, and other effects of climate change. We support the climate charter amendment and are asking our community to say yes to Proposition K.”

Ethics complaint alleges improper city opposition to climate charter

An organizer with Sunrise El Paso, one of the groups behind the proposed El Paso Climate Charter, has filed an ethics complaint against the city manager, interim City Manager Cary Westin and “unknown additional city staff” for allegedly using public funds to campaign against the climate charter.

The complaint, filed by Sunrise El Paso organizer Miguel Escoto, came weeks ahead of the May 6 election and on the heels of community meetings hosted by the city.

Those meetings were held to inform the public of the proposed 11 charter amendments and were hosted by some of the climate charter’s key critics, including the El Paso Chamber and the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Sunrise El Paso previously complained to the city about the meetings being hosted by the chambers, insisting that their involvement constitutes an anti-charter bias, but the city declined to move the meetings.

Escoto’s complaint lays out a number of grievances against city officials, specifically the following:

  • City officials used public funds to create “false and misleading materials” to undermine the charter proposal.
  • City officials used public officials on official city business to campaign against the climate charter.
  • The city refused to provide public information about Proposition K on city websites, despite including information on the other proposed charter amendments.
  • The city failed to register employees as lobbyists within the timeline mandated by city code.
  • The city allowed a former city manager to use confidential information for private, paid lobbying activities within 12 months of his departure from city employment.

“We cannot trust our city bureaucracy to advocate for climate justice,” Escoto said in a Sunrise El Paso news release. “We cannot even trust the city to inform residents with accurate, truthful information on what is on the ballot. The city protects fossil fuel profits at the expense of people and the environment ‒ time and time again.”

The city declined to comment on the allegations in the complaint.