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The El Paso Chamber’s claims that a proposed climate policy would wipe out half of the city’s jobs in less than a decade is based on faulty assumptions, critics say, and an energy researcher says that may have led to flawed results. 

The headline claim from the chamber’s study said the city could lose 170,000 jobs – about half of all employment in the El Paso metro area – and over $9 billion in earnings by 2030 if voters approve the Climate Charter in the May 6 election. 

The climate charter is a batch of policies that would, among other things, require the city to be powered by 80% zero-carbon electricity by 2030 and create a city climate department to track and report on emissions and climate change impacts. Establishing an electricity system that does not release heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – and instead relies largely on wind and solar farms and battery arrays to provide power – is a key goal for most large U.S. cities to help counter climate change. 

The El Paso Chamber’s consultant, Idaho-based Points Consulting, concluded that the climate charter policies amount to a “full-scale” abolition of fossil fuels – like the natural gas that fuels El Paso Electric’s power plants – within El Paso. That would cause a massive citywide energy shortage and force businesses to close and lay off workers en masse, said Brian Points, president and founder of the firm, in a phone interview with El Paso Matters. 

“In the real world, a lot of the stuff could get negotiated or struck down,” Points said of the charter policies. “But I’m saying: ‘Here’s what your policy says, and here’s what would happen if that policy was enacted.’”

But adopting the climate charter is unlikely to cause such an economic catastrophe in El Paso, said David Spence, a professor of energy law at the University of Texas at Austin, who was asked by El Paso Matters to review the chamber study. For reference, El Paso lost nearly 40,000 jobs in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic caused an historic wave of unemployment across the U.S.

“Modeling these enormous costs and loss of jobs that the chamber of commerce is anticipating associated with just transitioning to 80% (clean energy), that doesn’t really jibe with most of the other modeling exercises I’ve seen about getting to 80%,” Spence said. 

“I don’t think you’re going to have significantly higher energy costs” if the charter is adopted, he said. 

In a press release, the El Paso Chamber called Points Consulting a “professional economics firm” and said its findings show passage of the climate charter would have “a clear detrimental effect to our local businesses and regional economy.” 

“The El Paso Chamber believes wholeheartedly action must be taken to move toward a sustainable future,” the chamber said. “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.”

But the batch of policies would not ban the use of fossil fuels in the city, and climate organizers said the Chamber-commissioned study’s findings appear to be based on misinterpretations of the climate charter text.

Backers of the climate policy said it takes “modest but important steps,” including expanding renewable power generation by building solar panels on new buildings and requiring the city of El Paso to study what it would take to convert El Paso Electric from an investor-owned utility into a city-owned entity. 

“We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the Chamber would fund a report that attempts to confuse the El Paso electorate by spreading completely false information about the Climate Charter,” said Ana Fuentes, campaign manager for the El Paso Climate Charter.

Points Consulting added $3.7 billion to its total estimated cost of the climate charter, a sum it said households and businesses across El Paso would have to spend to replace their natural gas appliances – like heaters or stoves – with all-electric appliances. But the authors of the climate charter said none of the proposed policies would force El Pasoans to swap out their appliances.

Marathon Petroleum’s El Paso Refinery, near the intersection of Trowbridge and Geronimo, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The study also predicts that the Marathon-owned crude oil refinery north of Ascarate Park – where almost 400 workers produce around 130,000 barrels per day of refined products – would be forced to shut down if El Paso voters adopt the climate charter. 

The Marathon refinery in 2021 produced the second-most greenhouse gas emissions of any single facility in El Paso, at nearly 570,000 metric tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. El Paso Electric’s Newman gas-fired power plant on the far Northeast was the only facility in the city that produced more greenhouse emissions that year.  

Points said his team modeled the Marathon refinery’s closure because one provision in the climate charter calls to ban the sale of city-owned water for “fossil fuel industry activities outside of the city limits, or otherwise allow any City water to be used for such purpose.”

The policy would only ban the sale of city water to fossil fuel operators located outside of El Paso, which would not include the refinery, said Mike Siegel, political director for the advocacy group Ground Game Texas who helped craft the climate charter with the Sunrise El Paso group. 

El Paso Electric’s Newman Unit 6 power station in Northeast El Paso, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

And the charter would not force El Paso Electric to shutter its four natural gas-fired power plants, which produced 41% of the electricity the utility generated in 2021, according to El Paso Electric. El Paso Electric has separately committed to produce 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045, the same timeline called for in the climate charter.

“If and when El Paso voters adopt the Climate Charter, vehicles will still run on gasoline, homes will still be heated by natural gas, electrical lines will still carry energy generated by fossil fuel-powered plants, and Marathon Refinery will still operate inside the city limits,” Siegel said.

“The Climate Charter sets goals for environmental sustainability and reducing emissions, but is not by any means an ‘abolition’ of fossil fuel energy,” he said. 

The chamber’s study concluded the majority of the projected job losses would occur by 2030, with some additional business closures and layoffs by the time El Paso reaches zero-carbon power by 2045. 

But that timeline didn’t make sense to Spence, the UT professor, who said that a city transitioning its energy system to become 80% carbon-free is “relatively painless, in terms of cost and reliability declines.” Converting to a cleaner power system is unlikely to cause economic pain, at least until El Paso gets closer to 100% carbon-free electricity, he said. 

“I don’t think you’re going to have massive loss of jobs and dislocation associated with just getting to 80% clean energy,” Spence said. “Getting to that last 20% can be painful.” 

The Chamber acknowledged the skepticism toward its study. But it also blasted the charter’s organizers and said others can conduct their own analyses to gauge the potential economic impacts of the climate charter. 

“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 said. “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.”

The chamber pointed to the bond election in November, when El Paso voters approved a different climate-focused proposition granting $5 million for the city to develop a climate action plan. The chamber has also said El Paso doesn’t need a new climate department because the city recently created the Office of Climate and Sustainability and named Nicole Alderete-Ferrini its director. 

In an interview, Alderete-Ferrini said her office is working to hire a consultant, and it plans to produce a detailed city strategy to address climate change two years from now, by April 2025

“We are doing some community outreach, probably for the next 30 to 60 days, to really try to understand what this community is looking to get out of a Climate Action Plan,” Alderete-Ferrini said. “It’s too easy for governments to say, ‘This is what we need.’ We want to understand what the community is really looking for.”

She said she couldn’t comment on the climate charter, its potential impacts or on whether the city needs an additional climate-focused department. 

“We’re excited to execute the will of the voters from November,” Alderete-Ferrini said. “The voters have spoken and said, ‘We will give you authorization to use this ($5 million) to do this work.’ And so that’s what we’re really focused on right now.”