El Paso, Tex., earns its nickname as the Sun City. By some counts, it is the sunniest metro area in America, baking beneath the Chihuahuan Desert with only rare respite. You might think, then, that El Paso would be a prime location for solar power to thrive as a cheap, viable source of energy.
Not so. Just 5 percent of El Paso’s electricity in 2021 was sourced from renewables. Despite its ranking as one of the top cities in Texas for solar power capacity, El Paso doesn’t make the cut in terms of solar power production. “We could be the Saudi Arabia of solar energy,” El Paso City Council member Peter Svarzbein told a local media outlet. So why aren’t they? You’d be right if you guessed that the fossil fuel lobby has something to do with it.
We’re about to find out how strong that lobby still is. There’s a showdown happening on May 6, one that pits Sunrise El Paso against a fossil fuel utility and its Wall Street backer. It’s fitting that in the heart of oil country, a new front in the battle for the Green New Deal is opening. Can a group of young El Pasoans take on the fossil fuel industry in its own backyard, and win?
Proposition K is one of the most important pieces of climate policy you’ve likely never heard of. It’s a ballot initiative that, if voters approve it on Saturday, would eliminate a mandatory monthly fee for rooftop solar users in El Paso and facilitate the construction of solar panels on city property. But that’s just the start: It would also amend the city constitution to ban the use of municipal water in fracking the Permian Basin, enshrine a goal of sourcing 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030, create a climate department within city government, and mandate a review of taking its utility into the public’s hands. (El Paso Electric Company was sold to a private entity associated with JPMorgan Chase in 2020.) To the proposition’s proponents, it is known as the El Paso climate charter. To its opponents, it is “a poison pill for prosperity.”
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So far, the fight has flown under the radar in the national media. It hasn’t generated the same firestorm as the Willow oil project in Alaska, which pitted Biden the president against Biden the candidate as he broke a key promise to end oil extraction on federal lands. But this campaign to use the force of government to bring renewable energy to a city whose fossil fuel utility has long resisted it is arguably more important. The climate charter initiative in El Paso is not only a preview of how desperate the fossil fuel industry is to maintain its dominance in the era of the Texas Freeze but also a blueprint for marshaling unwilling utilities into the climate fight. If the country has any hope to decarbonize at the speed that the planet demands, we need a lot more campaigns like the one in El Paso.
How did this all come about? Last summer, amid the terrifying acceleration of climate disasters, the Biden administration passed the biggest suite of clean energy spending bills in history. The Green New Deal, this was not. But by resurrecting the idea of the federal government directing investments to create a new economy from the ground up—and hammering politicians with that message at every turn—the climate movement successfully pressured the White House to incentivize decarbonization at a massive scale. But the victory came with an asterisk. At the same time that they boosted clean energy spending, the bills also mandated the further expansion of fossil fuels. And burning carbon still cooks the planet, no matter how many wind turbines we build alongside an oil refinery.
The arsenal of clean energy investments in Biden’s green industrial policy also effectively opened a new front in the war against climate change: states, cities, towns, and the utility companies that deliver them power. Because Republicans took over the House of Representatives in November, they also killed the prospect of further climate legislation in Washington. The focus, for anyone interested in protecting their home from epochal floods and fires, became getting the billions of dollars from the feds into clean energy projects as fast as possible.
We have the billions, the logic goes, now we need the backyards. But deploying these federal dollars to build solar arrays and wind turbines requires more than eager consumers and savvy city planners. The country also needs the political will to overcome electric and gas utilities hell-bent on keeping us hooked to fossil fuels.
Enter El Paso—or rather, just to its southeast, the fracking fields of the Permian Basin, the largest shale gas deposit in the United States and arguably the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. It’s where Miguel Escoto, 25, a leader in Sunrise El Paso and a key figure in the climate charter fight, first saw how fossil fuels poisoned his community. While Escoto describes the landscape twinkling with gas flares and stinking of fumes as “absolute hell,” JPMorgan Chase, a major fracking financier, saw it as a business opportunity. As The American Prospect reported at the time, the bank took a tour bus through the Basin’s fracking fields while finalizing its takeover of El Paso Electric.
One of the first projects that the utility announced after the acquisition was a methane plant piping fracked gas from the Permian into El Paso. Escoto was part of a coalition of community groups that sued El Paso Electric over the plant’s effect on air quality in a majority-Spanish-speaking community. The utility settled—agreeing to a four-year ban on fossil fuel construction in the process—and forked over funds that Sunrise El Paso is using on a campaign that could transform the city into a powerhouse for the Green New Deal.
The campaign solidified for Escoto the sway that the fossil fuel lobby holds over local politics. The city council had voted in opposition to the construction of the gas plant, but were “bullied under threat of lawsuit” into accepting it by the fossil fuel industry, Escoto told me over the phone. “The council is mandated to go directly to the city charter,” he continued. So Sunrise El Paso did, too.
The young organizers enlisted the help of lawyer, union leader, and former congressional candidate Mike Siegel to help draft language to an amendment to the city charter that would prevent another environmental justice disaster like the gas plant. With the support of Ground Game Texas, the advocacy group Siegel founded with fellow congressional candidate Julie Oliver, Sunrise El Paso canvassed to gather enough signatures to put the charter on the ballot. They needed 20,000 signatures from citizens of El Paso to ensure the climate charter got a vote. They submitted 39,000.
In response, the fossil fuel industry has gone nuclear. The El Paso Chamber of Commerce—whose board of directors includes the CEO of El Paso Electric—commissioned a study arguing that the proposition would lead to financial ruin. Specifically, the industry-funded study argues that the city would lose 170,000 jobs and 40.8 percent of its economy. But these two figures are premised on a “fundamental misunderstanding of how energy systems work,” according to an unaligned Texas-based research firm. Why? The Chamber’s study assumes that the proposition would mandate a total prohibition of fossil fuels, including banning gas stoves. The charter does nothing of the sort.
Even so, the disinformation drive is well-funded—by more than a million dollars, according to the latest financial disclosures. A political action committee associated with the Chamber, alongside the Consumer Energy Alliance, an industry group that includes ExxonMobil and the Texas Oil & Gas Association, have purchased ads, mailers, and tote bags to promote their apocalyptic message in hopes of swaying voters.
In my capacity as fundraising director of the national Sunrise Movement, I’ve been directing donations toward setting the record straight. But the reality is that Sunrise doesn’t have the same access to financial resources as Paul Foster, fossil fuel billionaire, El Paso’s richest man, and one-time director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. By the time the vote happens, the fossil fuel lobby will likely have outspent the charter’s advocates by as much as 12 to 1.
We can’t pretend that El Paso Electric’s hostility to providing renewable energy is a red-state problem. Because it’s not just El Paso Electric. Across the country, fossil fuel utilities and their allies on the right are fighting against the transition to a cleaner and healthier economy. In New York State, Politico reports, a utility company is already lobbying to weaken the just-announced ban on gas hookups in new buildings. This comes in the wake of a Buffalo-area utility’s mobilizing its own customers against the proposal. In California, utility companies have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the adoption of rooftop solar. Oregon’s biggest gas utility is fighting to repeal the state’s first citywide ban on natural gas, adopted mere months ago.
The decentralized nature of the US energy grid means that the deployment of renewable energy can’t simply happen by fiat. Utilities like El Paso Electric are proving that they will spend heavily to protect their fossil fuel profits even if it means spottier service during even more extreme weather.
“The utility is the battleground,” Escoto told me, “because they are the fossil fuel industry in Texas. It’s a political decision what type of energy you use.” So far, that decision has been made for the citizens of El Paso by a fossil fuel utility owned by a bank in New York City. On May 6, they’ll have the chance to decide for themselves.