A majority of El Paso City Council representatives said they’re opposed to Proposition K, the collection of policies designed to address climate change in the Borderland, saying the controversial measure on the May 6 ballot would expose the city to a “barrage” of lawsuits and create untenable costs in the city’s budget.

Five city representatives who talked to El Paso Matters denounced Proposition K, also known as the Climate Charter, which consists of numerous wide-ranging rules that seek to address climate change by doing things like reducing air pollution in the area, conserving the city’s water and establishing a city climate department.

“I don’t think anybody is against the goal” of addressing climate change, said District 1 city Rep. Brian Kennedy. “The implementation is what is lacking.”

Elected officials in Texas are prohibited from using city resources to campaign for or against ballot measures, like Proposition K, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. But elected officials are allowed to share their personal opinions on a ballot measure. Political subdivisions such as the city government, meanwhile, can only share factual information about a ballot measure and cannot advocate for or against or distribute political advertising.

Representatives with the Sunrise El Paso group rejected the criticism from city representatives.  El Paso voters shouldn’t let the threat of potential lawsuits sway their vote, said Dominic Chacon, an organizer with Sunrise El Paso. 

“Some City Council members have been determined to stop the conversation around the Climate Charter and around El Paso’s ties to fossil fuels,” Chacon said. “The threat of lawsuits from fossil fuel industries should not be used to deter an initiative from passing. It is the city’s responsibility to defend the public interest.”

Along with Kennedy, city Reps. Art Fierro, Cassandra Hernandez, Joe Molinar and Isabel Salcido said they oppose the proposition; while Alexsandra Annello, Henry Rivera and Chris Canales did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the Climate Charter. 

Mayor Oscar Leeser also did not respond to questions about his thoughts on Proposition K. Leeser has avoided commenting on the proposition, but he released a statement earlier this month sharing the city’s estimated cost of the Climate Charter, which totaled $155 million in capital investments by 2045 – mostly for solar panels – plus $4.1 million in annual operating costs over that time.  

No law prohibits Leeser from sharing his personal opinion on the measure. San Antonio’s mayor has openly said he’s opposed to a proposition that similarly landed on that city’s May 6 municipal election ballot following a citizen-led petition. 

Financial impact in question

City representatives said passage of Proposition K would create millions in costs to establish a climate department and install solar panels across city buildings. It could also unleash a wave of lawsuits that the city would have to pay to battle in court, they said.

“We all know we have to do something before it’s too late. There’s no question about that,” Fierro said of enacting policies to address climate change. “My concern with (Proposition K) is when you talk about the financial impact on the city. It’s going to adversely impact our taxpayers.”

The Climate Charter contains about a dozen separate, detailed policies, but City Council members highlighted two provisions they say are the biggest hazards. One of those provisions would have the city examine bringing the investor-owned El Paso Electric utility under the city’s ownership

In order to estimate the cost to study bringing EPE under the city’s ownership, the city hired consultant Heather Bailey, who worked with Boulder, Colorado, a decade ago when that city was looking to acquire the local investor-owned utility. Bailey said the so-called feasibility study that would answer whether or how El Paso could purchase EPE would cost between $1.2 million and $12 million to conduct over as long as eight years. Regardless of its findings, the study would not compel the city to purchase El Paso Electric. 

“El Paso Electric Company is not for sale. And if it was to pass – the Climate Charter amendment – we, the city of El Paso, and El Paso Electric and probably others would be in litigation for years,” Molinar said. 

Molinar declined to say how he’d vote on Proposition K. But he said he didn’t think the city should spend millions studying municipal ownership of El Paso Electric. 

El Paso Electric has said its entire system – which delivers electricity across an area that spans from Hatch, New Mexico, east to Van Horn, Texas – is worth somewhere around $8 billion, but it remains far from clear what it would cost for the city to acquire the utility’s assets within El Paso city limits. The city would likely only acquire a portion of the utility’s assets, but it would probably have to make additional investments in infrastructure and to purchase electricity from elsewhere if there’s not enough local power generation capacity to meet the city’s demand.

“I don’t know what (municipalization) would cost. One thing I do know is it would cost us $12 million to find out if it was feasible,” Kennedy said. “We would be spending money to look at the possibility of doing things that the city of El Paso won’t do – that it can’t afford.”

Chacon of Sunrise El Paso said a feasibility study is essential to “accurately assess the value of our electric grid.”

While Leeser and Rivera did not respond to questions for this article, during a City Council meeting late last month, both expressed some skepticism about Proposition K. They asked what would happen if El Paso Electric declined to negotiate a sale of its assets to the city. 

“You can’t force somebody to sell,” Leeser said during the March 28 meeting. 

While the city can’t compel El Paso Electric to sell, it could initiate eminent domain proceedings to acquire some of the utility’s assets, which would likely spur a major legal fight between the city and EPE.

Ban on water sales?

The other big potential hazard in Proposition K, according to city representatives, is a rule that would ban city-owned El Paso Water from selling water to fossil fuel industry operations outside the city’s limits. 

The ban on water sales to the fossil fuel industry outside the city would prevent El Paso Electric from purchasing water to operate two of its four local natural gas-fired power plants – the Rio Grande plant in Sunland Park and the Montana Power Station on the far Eastside – that generate about 13% of El Paso’s electricity. 

Backers of the Climate Charter have said the ban would force El Paso Electric to adopt more renewable power sources such as solar instead of using water at its carbon dioxide-emitting gas plants. EPE, however, maintains that it must operate quick-start power plants to ensure there’s always enough electricity to power the city. 

Council representatives also said they’re worried about the possibility that some small businesses, such as gas stations, that are located within El Paso County but outside the city limits could be unable to purchase water from El Paso Water and would have to close down. 

“The lack of clarity on the cost and consequences of converting El Paso Electric to municipal ownership and banning the use of City water for fossil fuel industry activities outside the city limits will lead to a barrage of litigation, all at taxpayers’ expense,” Salcido said in a statement. 

Sunrise El Paso countered by pointing out that the city has spent at least $3.3 million on litigation over the controversial Downtown multipurpose arena, but now is “preemptively undermining their ability to do the same for the Climate Charter,” Chacon said. 

“Why is the City Council committed to fighting court cases on behalf of developers, yet does not want to fight court battles on behalf of our community’s health and natural resources?” he said. 

Who was at the table?

The five city representatives said the city should continue on the path it started when El Paso voters last November approved a bond proposition allocating $5 million for the city to establish an Office of Climate and Sustainability. The office, headed by Nicole Alderte-Ferrini, will craft a climate action plan over the next two years detailing how the city can help address climate change in the Borderland. 

The $5 million is “seed money, so that we can implement strategies that would come from an inclusive process to create a climate action plan,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez said that when environmental organizers with Sunrise El Paso and the Austin-based Ground Game Texas group created the Climate Charter, they didn’t consult with enough El Pasoans before writing the petition that got about 22,000 verified signatures from El Paso voters. A city-led climate action planning process, however, would consult numerous local groups before producing climate policies, she said.

“There was nobody at the table, there was no inclusivity,” Hernandez said of Proposition K. “Even the members of council and the leaders that would have to implement the strategy weren’t at the table. Industry, residents, neighborhood associations, nobody was able to give their feedback” on the proposition. 

Chacon with Sunrise El Paso said that was because the group centered the Climate Charter effort around “the community members most impacted” by pollution, rather than city leaders. But he said the Climate Charter’s proponents “will continue to reach out to other organizations (and) groups who would like to be part of the implementation process.”

Proposition K proponents have argued the Climate Charter would save the city money. One policy in the proposition would require the city to install solar panels onto city-owned buildings, which in theory would help the city save money on its utility bills after the initial investment in the solar panels is paid off. The city spends about $11 million annually for electricity and gas, an expense that could decline some – and free up room elsewhere in the city’s budget – if voters pass Proposition K.

The city earlier this year contemplated breaking the Climate Charter up into individual propositions on the ballot rather than have it as a single all-or-nothing item. Backers of the Climate Charter were critical of that attempt, which failed, and Proposition K appears on the ballot as a single item.

Kennedy said if it had been broken up, he would likely have supported elements of the Climate Charter. 

“I just felt like there were some parts of it that I could say, ‘Yes, I want to do that. I think that’s great,’” Kennedy said. “But when it’s as a whole, I think there’s such detrimental parts that I’m just not supporting it.”

Disclosure: El Paso Electric Co. is a 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...