Downtown El Paso skyline as seen from Arizona Street in Central El Paso. (Michaela Román/El Paso Matters)

El Paso’s current workforce would be cut in half within seven years if voters approve a ballot measure in May that requires the city to more forcefully address climate change, the El Paso Chamber said in a statement.

The city of El Paso would lose 170,000 jobs and nearly $8 billion in workers’ earnings between now and 2030 if voters approve the so-called climate charter that would make climate policy a part of the El Paso City Charter, according to the chamber. 

The chamber’s claim is based on a study it paid Idaho-based firm Points Consulting to conduct. However, the chamber, a member-driven organization comprised of area businesses, has not released the study or explained its findings in detail.

Environmental groups who successfully petitioned for the charter policy to be on the ballot call the chamber’s claim “rhetoric” and “fear mongering” ahead of the May 6 election for which early voting begins April 24.

The proposed climate charter policy includes amendments that would have the city aim to reduce and track emissions, direct investment toward renewable energy and require the city government to create climate-related jobs. The climate charter also would establish a city climate department and an independent climate commission, as well as ban the sale or transfer of city-owned water for fossil fuel industry activities outside city limits.

More than three dozen people spoke on a charter amendment petition at an Aug. 2, 2022, City Council meeting. The petition asks the city to include wide-ranging climate policy in its charter. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

The climate charter also would have the city “employ all available efforts” to convert El Paso Electric into a city-owned utility.

“Climate change is real, and we are committed to common-sense reforms that push for a comprehensive approach to the matter,” the El Paso Chamber said in a statement. “However, we must do so in a way that considers the cost to the region – especially to those whose livelihood is dependent upon jobs that would no longer exist under the passage of the proposed amendment.”

As of December, there were about 330,000 people employed in El Paso, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. That means the climate charter would wipe out 51% of all jobs in the El Paso metro area by the end of this decade, the chamber said, citing the study it commissioned in October.

By comparison, El Paso lost just under 40,000 jobs during the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a historic wave of job losses nationwide.

Petition drives climate policy proposals

The climate charter amendment proposal was added to the May ballot after a citizen-led petition organized by the environmental group Sunrise El Paso and Austin-based Ground Game Texas turned in more than 39,000 voter signatures last summer. The climate charter is one of about a dozen proposals that will go before voters in the election.

A major provision of the climate charter calls for 80% of the electricity that powers El Paso homes and businesses to come from carbon-free sources, such as wind and solar farms or nuclear power plants, by 2030. The city must be powered entirely by zero carbon electricity by 2045 if voters adopt the climate charter. 

Sunrise El Paso organizers Miguel Escoto and Ana Fuentes Zueck at an Aug. 2, 2022, City Council meeting. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

“The charter will decrease pollution, increase renewables, conserve our water and create jobs,”  said Miguel Escoto, an organizer with Sunrise El Paso who helped get the climate charter on the ballot.

The chamber declined to share the study with El Paso Matters. But Brian Points, president and founder of Points Consulting, said in an email that the chamber will probably release the study “later this week or early next week.”  

In written responses to follow-up questions, chamber officials said Points Consulting used an “economic impact model” that captured the effects of “phasing out energy production via fossil fuels and ramping up solar and renewable energy production.” 

As a result of reducing fossil fuel-fired power generation, the city’s energy supply would decrease by 69% by 2030 and by 72% by 2045, the chamber said.  

“This drastic decrease in energy production helps explain the steep decline in economic activity,” said Mia Romero, the chamber’s director of advocacy. “Renewable energy is not yet the most readily available, reliable or affordable option for those seeking to meet output demands, and would lead to the stunting of a range of industries in El Paso.”

El Paso Electric has previously said it plans to produce 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045. The utility plans to add 700 additional megawatts of solar generation by 2025, which would triple its total solar capacity from today. One megawatt is roughly enough electricity to power 200 homes on a summer day.

“We already have a plan in place, a 10-, 20-, 30-year forecast at what it’s going to look like, and how we’re going to get” to zero-carbon electricity, said George De La Torre, an El Paso Electric spokesman. He said by 2025, 64% of the power the utility generates will come from zero-carbon sources, and increase to 80% carbon-free power by 2035.

El Paso Electric’s Newman Solar Facility in Northeast El Paso. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Electric)

It’s not yet certain how El Paso Electric will accomplish generating 100% carbon-free electricity.

But De La Torre said the utility is examining blending hydrogen – which only emits water vapor and heat when it’s burned – into its natural gas-fired turbines to lower their carbon dioxide emissions. Someday, the utility may be able to run power plant turbines fired entirely on zero-carbon hydrogen. 

“We’re moving the needle and moving in that direction,” De La Torre said.

Kelly Tomblin, El Paso Electric’s CEO, is one of 23 members on the chamber’s board.

The El Paso Chamber didn’t respond to questions about why the climate charter’s requirement that the city reach zero carbon electricity by 2045 would cause a crushing wave of job losses in the city when El Paso Electric already has committed to decarbonize by 2045.

“It’s just a clear example of fear mongering,” Escoto said of the chamber’s statement.

The chamber is not an “unbiased group of people,” he said. “They’re not small business owners, mom-and-pop shops. They represent the most powerful monopolies of our community.”

The climate charter does call for a faster transition than El Paso Electric. The utility plans to reach 80% carbon-free power by 2035, five years later than the climate charter’s timeline.

“You’ll hear a lot of rhetoric from the utility company that they’re trying their best,” said Christian Marquardt, another organizer with Sunrise El Paso. “However, if that’s really the case, how does the charter set them back in any way?”

Climate office established

But while the climate charter’s decarbonization timeline is similar to the one El Paso Electric has already proposed, the climate charter also calls for things that exist in some form already or that would force big changes within city government. 

The charter amendment would have the city establish a climate department and hire a director.

The city recently created the Office of Climate and Sustainability and named Nicole Alderete-Ferrini its director. The office will spend $5 million that voters approved in the November bond election to develop a climate action plan and boost renewable energy in El Paso.

That climate-focused bond proposition, one of three on the November ballot, passed with 50.6% of the vote, the slimmest majority of the three propositions.

If voters adopt the climate charter in May, it would “create an annual goal for the creation of climate jobs” that would be announced when City Manager Tommy Gonzalez proposes the city’s annual budget, according to the climate charter text.

“By law, the municipal government will be legally mandated to find climate jobs,” Escoto said. “This would increase the amount of jobs. It would increase the amount of job security.”

But it’s far from clear how the city would generate job opportunities or coax private employers to hire workers. A $200 million taxpayer-funded jobs program underway in San Antonio – likely the largest city-led workforce program in the country – has placed just 58 people into new jobs nearly a year after it launched.

A city-owned power company?

One of the final provisions of the proposed charter amendment calls on the city to examine turning El Paso Electric into a city-owned utility similar to Austin Energy and CPS Energy in Austin and San Antonio, respectively.

Creating a city-owned utility in El Paso could be difficult because the city would likely have to pay several billion dollars to acquire El Paso Electric’s assets.

Difficult, but not out of the question: Eighteen U.S. communities have created municipally-owned utilities in the last two decades, according to the American Public Power Association. 

The council addresses possible charter amendments every two years, but its last attempt in 2020 was scrapped after the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the community. The last time the City Charter was amended was in 2018.

The climate charter is “really rich in its ability to give power back to the community,” Escoto said, “and bringing the energy that we need away from the hands of private corporations and J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, and towards us as a community.” 

Disclosure: El Paso Electric Co. is financial supporter of El Paso Matters. Financial supporters play no role in El Paso Matters’ journalism.

Diego Mendoza-Moyers is a reporter covering energy and the environment. An El Paso native, he has previously covered business for the San Antonio Express-News and Albany Times Union, and reported for the...