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Courtesy of Sunrise El Paso

Fossil Fuels

Young Activists Put El Paso On The Front Line Of Climate Defense

Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game Texas have forced a local referendum on a climate initiative to reduce fossil fuel extraction.

I have a neighbor who likes to wear a hat with this phrase on the front: “We The People…..Are Pissed Off!” In his case, it’s a variation of the MAGA theme because I live in a community of retirees who tend to skew hard right. In El Paso, Texas, a group of young people working under the umbrella of the Sunrise Movement and Ground Game Texas gathered more than 40,000 signatures last year to force a referendum on whether fossil fuel activities in and around El Paso should be curtailed. The referendum will be the subject of a special election scheduled for May 6.

On its website, Sunrise El Paso states its objectives quite clearly, calling its activities “A campaign for the people, built by the people.” I’m pretty sure their idea of “the people” is quite different from my neighbor’s.

“We acknowledge, understand, and see the ways in which our communities have been terrorized by the fossil fuel industry, by big money, by environmental racism, by leadership that fails to protect and sustain our communities.

“As a community, we are taking our power back through this Climate Charter campaign. We are working to bring green jobs to El Paso, build solar power, conserve water and protect its quality, address pollution head-on in our communities, fight against environmental racism and inequity, encourage a municipalized electric utility, and so much more through this people-led initiative.”

Climate Justice For El Paso

The proposal on the ballot would require the city of El Paso to adopt a comprehensive climate policy that would prohibit the use of city water for fossil fuel extraction projects outside city limits. It matters that El Paso sits on the edge of the so-called Permian Basin which produces about 40% of all US oil. As such, it is ground zero for a sizable chunk of America’s carbon emissions. The Permian Basin is also a primary source of methane emissions in America.

According to the US Geological Survey, in 2019, the fracking industry used 72 billion gallons of fresh water to extract oil and gas from the Permian Basin — this in an area that is semi-arid. That is 240 times more freshwater than the industry used in 2010. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, who frequently comments on CleanTechnica stories, told The Guardian the water used for fracking is “laced with chemicals [and then] percolates through to people’s agricultural fields and sometimes wells where people drink them.” Activists refer to the Permian Basin as a “carbon bomb” because it is the source of so much methane and volatile organic compounds that are associated with poor air quality that can degrade human health.

“El Paso is on the verge of potentially passing one of the most progressive pieces of climate legislation in the country,” Deirdre Shelly, campaign director for the national Sunrise Movement, tells The Guardian. Proponents say the climate charter would prepare El Paso to withstand extreme weather events and accelerate the city’s transition to renewables. It would requiring 80% of the city’s energy to come from carbon free sources by 2030. It also encourages rooftop solar development, calls for the establishment of a city climate department, and could transfer ownership of El Paso Electric tp the city. The utility company was purchased in 2020 by a JP Morgan-backed investment fund. For more details about the petition, please see the full article published March 7 by the El Paso Times.

“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.”

Furious Pushback From Industry & Business Leaders

The El Paso Times reports the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study last fall designed to determine the economic impact of the climate referendum. Not surprisingly, the report claimed the actions proposed by the climate activist would decimate the business community and put large numbers of local residents out of work, among many other negative results.

“The findings of this study show a clear detrimental effect to our local businesses and regional economy, and because of this, the El Paso Chamber is formally announcing its opposition to the Climate Charter Amendment, a decision supported unanimously by the El Paso Chamber Board of Directors,” the Chamber said in a recent announcement. An undercurrent of the Chamber’s opposition is a distaste for the youthfulness of the climate activists. There is a whiff of “you’re too young to understand what the real world is all about” that permeates the pronouncements of the business community.

“As interested parties continue to call into question the findings of this analysis, we encourage a multitude of analyses on the climate initiative slated for the May ballot,” the chamber’s statement read. “In fact, we believe that with such a high financial impact to the community, it was irresponsible of the authors of the climate charter to not have conducted a similar analysis prior to presenting the item to voters.” So nyah, nyah, nyah. We are your elders and we know best.

While the chamber expressed support for growing El Paso’s business community “in a sustainable way,” it said approval of the climate charter “would bring our economy to a screeching halt and roll back decades of investment — across all industries. The El Paso Chamber believes wholeheartedly action must be taken to move toward a sustainable future. However, we cannot, in good conscience, support an amendment that has the potential to put thousands of El Pasoans at risk of losing their jobs and livelihoods.”

Sharon Wilson, an organizer with the climate advocacy group Earthworks who previously worked in the oil and gas industry, told The Guardian this type of fearmongering from industry stakeholders is par for the course when groups like hers 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. At some point the tobacco industry was not allowed to advertise any more and that needs to happen with the oil and gas industry,” Wilson said.

Big Oil

Image credit: Greenpeace

CleanTechnica readers will recall that activists with Greenpeace engaged in a massive protest against fossil fuel advertising in Rotterdam last year. The fossil fuel industry has tried everything it can think of to intimidate, browbeat, and criminalize climate protesters, but the fundamental question remains — if we don’t begin transitioning away from fossil fuels now, when will we do so? After the Earth has become so hot it will no longer support human life except for some isolated cocoons of super-wealthy people? “No time like the present,” my old Irish grandmother would say.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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