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El Paso Climate Plan Goes Down, Organizers Sum Up

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The energy lobby spent more than $1 million to defeat El Paso’s Climate Charter Amendment. Grassroots activists vow to continue the fight for climate justice.

Proposition K, the forward-looking climate charter amendment put before the voters in El Paso, TX on May 6, failed to pass as 81% of the voters rejected the measure in a low-turnout election.  The measure, if passed, would have compelled the city to establish new climate jobs, install solar power to all city buildings, and study municipalization of the local electric company. These steps would have put El Paso on the path toward 80% clean, renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2045. (Convergence interviewed Sunrise El Paso activist Crystal Moran and Ground Game, Texas co-founder Mike Siegel in April 2023 about the implications of their bold move to rein in corporate energy interests in favor of community priorities for a clean environment.)

Organizers from Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game, Texas had high hopes for successful outcomes after their 2022 signature gathering campaign netted 39,000 signatures. El Pasoans live in the 14th worst city out of 227 cities and metropolitan areas monitored for ozone pollution last year by the American Lung Association. El Paso has received an “F” for ozone pollution every year since 2009, and the impact is felt most acutely in the frontline working-class Latinx communities near the city’s power plants and refineries. Health issues such as asthma and heart diseases are exacerbated by air pollution; no wonder people eagerly signed the petition to qualify the Climate Charter Amendment.

So, what happened? After such a promising start, why did the measure only garner 9,190 out of 49,800 votes cast?

Organizers planned the signature gathering in spring 2022 in order to qualify the measure for the November 2022 election, in which former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke challenged Gov. Greg Abbott. “The city clerk, who worked under the direction of the city manager, a direct opponent of this climate policy, refused to count the signatures in a timely way and that delayed our election from November to May,” Mike Siegel said. “That electorate would have passed this climate policy. A structural change like switching to a very low-turnout May electorate, which skews extremely old and conservative, had a huge impact.”

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Smothered in lies

The oil and gas industries waged an all-out campaign to defeat Prop. K, pouring in over $1 million from donors that included the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, El Paso Electric, and Marathon Petroleum; $500 million came from the Consumer Energy Alliance, a lobbying firm that represents Shell USA and Occidental Petroleum. Prop K supporters raised a little over $41,000. The corporate interests were able to start sending out campaign mailers in March and blanketed cable TV and radio with ads. “I hoped that people would see through the fear-mongering because that’s what it was, saying that their taxes were going to increase and that the Climate Charter would kill jobs, and that the cost of buying El Paso Electric was going to be billions of dollars—but the Climate Charter did not require the City to buy El Paso Electric,” Crystal Moran said.

In the El Paso Matters news report of April 21, 2023 energy research group IdeaSmiths, which is composed of University of Texas research scientists, debunked the Chamber of Commerce’s claims that 170,000 jobs would be lost: “El Paso Electric’s own modeling … indicates that it is very possible to power a growing El Paso economy while vastly reducing emissions,” the IdeaSmiths report read. “The assumption that energy sources cannot be replaced, and the downstream effect being that much of the city’s businesses shut down or move, is irrational.” 

Despite being busted on their false claims, the Chamber of Commerce continued to sway voters via TV and radio ads, billboard advertising and weekly mailers. “Older voters were getting smothered with ads from the opposition, and a lot of them are homeowners and don’t want to see their property tax getting raised, even though Prop K wasn’t going to be at fault,” Moran said. “We were hoping for a surge of younger voters, but there wasn’t.  That’s something that we need to figure out the next time. What are the messages that we really need to send to this population to get them to vote, not just sign a pledge.”

“We had a tough uphill climb to convince these conservative, older voters to take a risk and to take a strong climate action,” Siegel said. “Our campaign didn’t have the resources to fully educate the public about, for example, why municipalization of El Paso Electric would be a good thing, how you could transfer profits from the utility to city programs. And so we were vulnerable to some of these opposition attacks.”

“We were able to run four mailers and had some radio ads in the last two weeks of the campaign and had a very strong social media campaign and social media ads ,” Moran added. “Sending more mailers, running more ads, and television ads were things we wanted to do but we didn’t have that kind of money.”

Advancing the climate justice cause

Moran and Siegel gave clear-eyed, sober and daunting answers when asked what they see coming out of this bitter defeat. “First of all, you need to build the coalition on the front end while you’re drafting the policy, even before you gather signatures,” Siegel said. “We invited a lot of people to draft the climate policy with us, but they didn’t really take us seriously. They didn’t engage and then later when the election was happening, they had critiques or complaints…. I would like to see the winning coalition in place before we finalize the policy. The labor movement was swayed ultimately by the electrical workers, and they were concerned about our municipalization demand because there’s a statewide ban on public sector, municipal or collective bargaining and they were like, ‘Well, this would just kill our jobs, we would no longer have a union contract.’” 

Lack of support from the Democratic Party also hindered the Prop K campaign. “We got the endorsement of the Democratic Party,” Siegel said, “but they didn’t work for us. And Congresswoman Veronica Escobar didn’t formally oppose Prop K, but she didn’t support us either. Beto O’Rourke came in very late. Frankly, one of my big learning points is that this shows us how far we have to go in the climate action movement in this country. Municipalization of the electric utility does cost something. You do have to sell bonds to pay for the utility. I don’t think most Democrats are ready to pay for climate action. In terms of the more aggressive demands we’ve made, there’s not enough support for it yet. Public control of the electric utility is important for the long-term movement for climate action.”

In order to build public support, Sunrise El Paso plans to continue mobilize their supporters. “The areas that we’ve identified as frontline communities like the Chamizal and the Segundo Barrio, these places are literally touching the border or they’re right next to a gas plant or the refinery,” Moran said. “We are going out there and talking with people in those neighborhoods to really get to know the community members. People would share stories about the smells coming from the refineries and experiencing headaches. Assessing what they don’t know and helping them realize what it means to continue   to live with fossil fuels will help ignite them into action.”

Siegel emphasized the need for an intergenerational coalition. “Young people, they’re fighting for their lives; they understand the science; they see climate change. I’ve talked to too many older Democrats who basically have a defeatist attitude towards climate—‘there’s no way you can beat the oil and gas lobby, we’re screwed.’ What the young people are saying is, ‘Well, we have to fight. Even if we can mitigate some of the worst effects, that’s still saving lives, so let’s do something.’ I just need my generation and the generation older than me to really give a shit and believe that victory is possible.”

Sunrise El Paso is gearing up for the continued fight and is transitioning to a new organization, the Amanecer People’s Project, which will have a 501(c)3 (charitable, educational organization) and a 501(c)4 (a partisan advocacy group). “We’re definitely want to continue to onboard young activists and those who are interested in joining our group in mobilizing El Paso,” said Moran.

“We can show we improved turnout among young voters by 350%,” Siegel added. “In 2019, the last time there was one of these May elections, only 1,200 people under the age of 35 voted. And in this election, nearly 5000 people under 35 voted. That obviously wasn’t enough to make a difference against all those conservative older voters, but we changed the behavior of all these young people by getting them engaged in local elections     ….    

 “What I saw on election night was dozens of young Latinx organizers who had done something really hard that they had never done before and they weren’t about to give up,” Siegel said. “I could very well see that in five years from now two or three of them might be on the El Paso City Council. I  could see them leading major NGOs. I could see them building the coalition that we didn’t have this time. If this was just the cauldron that forged a new generation of El Paso leaders, then that’s a wonderful outcome.”

“We hope to persuade other communities to try the climate charter effort in their communities,” Moran said. “We’re going to keep pushing and not let that defeat crush us.

We will win.”