This is unchartered territory.

Two progressive groups, Austin-based Ground Game Texas and Sunrise El Paso, are seeking signatures for a November ballot initiative to change El Paso’s governing documents to focus on climate goals, such as reducing emissions.

Luis Enrique Miranda, a longtime organizer with Sunrise El Paso, is now the campaign manager for the ballot measure, called the Climate Charter. 

“It’s intended to give voters a chance to accept and set out their own climate policy and start telling the city officials they need to prioritize the climate, without waiting for city representatives to get it,” Miranda said. 

On Saturday, the groups plan to launch the push for 35,000 signatures by May to put the question to voters in the November election, kicking it off with a press event at the San Jacinto Plaza and then a noon reception at Old Sheepdog Brewery to train volunteers.

A charter change is allowed within “home-rule” cities in Texas. A charter grants more leeway for local power and self-rule, as long as those local laws don’t cross federal or state law. Charter amendments can be brought by city councilors, or by submitted amendments with a petition signed by 20,000 qualified voters, and placed on the ballot. If a majority of voters approve the measure, it’s ordered to be adopted by the city council. 

El Paso pledged to put forward a formal climate action plan last June, lagging behind other cities in both Texas and the region, who’ve made pledges to reduce emissions. 

Miranda said people are galvanized and asking for big changes from the city, pointing to opposition against the Newman 6 power plant, years of lawsuits over air quality, the future concern over water supplies and the impacts of monsoon floods.

Scientists around the globe have called on international governments to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to prevent worse warming of the planet. 

El Paso is on the frontlines of those climate changes, with future concerns of worsening drought and hotter temperatures and that deserves immediate action, he said. 

“In reality, we’re trying to catch up with about 60 years of failure to address this issue,” Miranda said. “So if it feels very sudden, it’s because it has to be.”

Luis Enrique Miranda

The six-page charter amendment delves into creating a policy which Sunrise El Paso said will focus on a reduction of El Paso’s contribution to climate change, to invest in an “environmentally sustainable future” and to ensure that underserved communities (listed as Black, Indigenous, disabled and poorer communities) see climate justice. 

One portion would instate a Climate Department in the city, headed by a new position of Climate Director to ensure the city was meeting its goals, and would track emissions. Another duty of the department is to prepare reports on climate impacts to zoning, right of way permits, expanding significant infrastructure, capital improvement projects, procurements or in the city budget. 

The charter effort will make real changes on job creation and encouraging solar power, Miranda said, but will also ask for a study on converting El Paso Electric into a municipal company and prohibit the sale or transfer of water for “fossil fuel activities” outside of city limits. 

Mike Siegel, a former civil rights attorney in Austin and Democratic pick for a congressional seat in 2020, started Ground Game Texas in 2021 alongside fellow politician Julie Oliver after losing their elections. 

“Both of us accomplished big gains in turnout and recruited a lot of volunteers and attracted a lot of energy,” he said. “We want to stay involved in Texas politics and this idea of creating a more progressive state without being a candidate.”

Now, the nonprofit is sponsoring other charter changes, such as decriminalizing cannabis in Austin which qualified for the May ballot, but also asking for a minimum wage increase to $15 in Mission, Texas. 

Siegel said he and other lawyers read through the proposed charter saying, “everything that’s in there is very much defensible.”

The estimated price to put the measure on the ballot is six figures, and could be as high as $300,000, Siegel said, adding that the group would hire canvassing staff and field organizers starting at $18 an hour. 

“This is very intensive work, you have to talk to people, you have to stay COVID-19 safe, you have to protect yourself from the heat,” Siegel said. 

International climate talks, such as COP 26, and national efforts such as the Build Back Better bill, have largely stalled, but Siegel said local action can be an example. 

“The biggest opportunity we have in Texas is to organize for climate action locally, and hopefully inspire other cities to take similar actions,” Siegal said.

Cover photo: Contamination in the air obscures views over the tri-state region on Dec. 14. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New...