A first-of-its-kind municipal climate charter in Texas could throw a wrench in US fossil fuel extraction. Residents of a major Texas city just west of the Permian Basin, the largest oil field in the US, will have the chance to vote on the package this spring.
If the proposal passes, the city of El Paso would adopt a comprehensive climate policy that would include prohibiting the use of city water for extraction projects outside city limits, such as in the Permian Basin, which makes up roughly 40% of all US oil production.
“El Paso is on the verge of potentially passing one of the most progressive pieces of climate legislation in the country,” said Deirdre Shelly, campaigns director for the national Sunrise Movement.
Proponents say the climate charter would prepare El Paso to withstand extreme weather events and accelerate the city’s transition to renewables, requiring 80% of its energy to come from carbon free sources by 2030. It also encourages rooftop solar development, proposes establishing a climate department and could move the ownership of El Paso Electric into the city’s hands. The utility company was purchased in 2020 by a JP Morgan-tied fund.
“We’re battling the fossil fuel giants in our community,” said Ana Fuentes, a 25-year-old resident of El Paso and a campaign manager for the local Sunrise chapter. “This charter would allow people to have the platform and a space where our concerns will be prioritized over the bottom line of fossil fuel oligarchs.”
Last July, Sunrise El Paso and Austin-based Ground Game Texas submitted nearly 40,000 petition signatures to get the climate charter on the ballot for the November 2022 election, but due to a prolonged verification process, the vote on the plan will take place in the 6 May election. Roughly half of the petition signers were people under the age of 35.
“Something [we] talk a lot about a lot is climate anxiety, and I think we all feel it and it shows in those numbers,” Fuentes said.
The climate charter has the potential to disrupt drilling in the Permian Basin. The proposed policy would ban the use of city water for fossil fuel activities outside of El Paso limits. The annual amount of freshwater used for fracking the Texas side of the Permian Basin was estimated at 72bn gallons in 2019. That is a 2,400% rise from 2010, according to the US Geological Survey.
“We would be able to preserve the water within our desert community for household use, instead of having that water be sent to fracking and fossil fuel projects outside the city,” said Fuentes.
Fracking depletes large amounts of water that is scarce in desert communities like El Paso. On top of that, this process of extracting natural gas has been shown to cause groundwater contamination.
Water used for fracking is “laced with chemicals [and then] percolates through to people’s agricultural fields and sometimes wells where people drink them”, said Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. The fossil fuel activities in the Permian Basin, which have been termed a “carbon bomb” by environmentalists, release planet-heating methane and volatile organic compounds associated with poor air quality that can degrade human health.
The El Paso chamber of commerce, a membership group representing the interest of businesses, wrote in an emailed statement that it opposes the climate charter, stating that the proposition “has the right end game in mind – an improved climate, but doing so will cost us the very livelihoods it seeks to enrich”. The chamber claims that the climate charter would pose a “clear detrimental effect to local businesses and regional economy”, according to the findings from the economic impact report that the chamber paid for.
Sharon Wilson, an organizer with the nonprofit Earthworks who previously worked in the oil and gas industry, said this type of fear mongering from industry stakeholders is par for the course when environmentalists propose bold climate action.
“The oil and gas industry actually uses some of the same tactics that the tobacco industry used to deceive the public about the harm of tobacco,” said Wilson. Indeed, there is a documented history of companies like Exxon and Chevron borrowing from the tobacco industry’s playbook.
“At some point the tobacco industry was not allowed to advertise anymore and that needs to happen with the oil and gas industry.” Wilson said. “Smoking is a choice, breathing air is not.”
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