Although Proposition K, the sweeping collection of climate-related policies, was handily defeated at the ballot box on May 6, the city of El Paso’s work to address climate change in the Borderland is just beginning.
Nicole Alderete-Ferrini, who heads the city’s recently-formed Office of Climate and Sustainability, is tasked with using $5 million that El Paso voters granted in a bond election last November to craft the city’s comprehensive Climate Action Plan.
Most of the major cities in Texas – Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston – have adopted similar plans that lay out broad strategies to do things like reduce greenhouse gas pollution, address urban heat and conserve water, among other goals. In an interview, Alderete-Ferrini lauded the plan adopted by the city of Dallas in 2020 with the support of industry and business groups such as the Dallas Regional Chamber, AT&T and the natural gas giant Atmos Energy
After a contentious campaign over Proposition K in which spending on advertisements and campaign materials topped $1 million, Alderete-Ferrini said her biggest challenge now is to build consensus among the different business, environmental and community groups that clashed over the proposed Climate Charter.
But the city of El Paso’s Climate Action Plan will likely be much different than the set of policies in Prop K. Other Texas cities’ climate plans run somewhere around 100 pages long, and seek to lower emissions from transportation and electricity generation, ensure buildings are energy efficient and expand open green space, among other things.
The first steps for Alderete-Ferrini’s office, however, will be to hire a consultant to help with the work, and then to measure the level of air pollution – and where it comes from – in the Borderland today. The city expects to award a contract for a consultant likely by late summer or fall.
Alderete-Ferrini recently spoke with El Paso Matters about her office’s work on the city’s Climate Action Plan so far and what El Pasoans can expect from the plan, which will likely be completed by spring of 2025.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
El Paso Matters: What is the early status of your office’s work on the city’s Climate Action Plan? Will the city still be holding an information session for the public in May?
Alderete-Ferrini: Our community has just been through what ultimately turned out to be a very divisive moment. As we come out and do the work that we were mandated to do through Prop C (approved by voters last November), we want to make sure that we are capturing the concerns of the whole community. We did (eight) community meetings in two weeks (to share information about Proposition K). We read a lot of different rooms with a lot of different people and a lot of different opinions. It was really a lot of listening. I think a lot of our work moving forward is going to be healing that divide, and what I understood out of (the Proposition K election campaign) was that our community cares about this issue.
And so, all of that was to say we’re going to push our timeline out about a month. We had wanted to come out in May with the information session and then release the (request to solicit consultant proposals). We learned so much during the last several months that we’re going to take a breath.
El Paso Matters: Why is it important to develop this climate action plan for El Paso?
Alderete-Ferrini: Because the health and the prosperity of our people is important, and climate is directly tied to that. In essence, climate is the responsibility of our leadership in this community, government and private sector alike. Because we know it impacts human health. We know it impacts economics, we know it impacts social structures. Those aren’t debatable facts anymore in 2023. So it’s our responsibility.
El Paso Matters: Did your office learn any lessons from the Proposition K campaign and what you heard from El Paso residents that you can incorporate into the city’s Climate Action Plan? For example, the city commissioned a study by Yearout Energy to calculate the cost of installing solar panels on city-owned buildings. Is there anything you can take away from that study or from the experience of the last several months?
Alderete-Ferrini: There was a lot. I think out of the Prop K discussion, we need to take a look at how we are mitigating emissions … and how we generate our energy. So one of the things that we’re going to do right out of the gate, and we’re actually using some federal money for this, is get a greenhouse gas inventory.
What I heard loud and clear is that when (pollution) affects air quality, when it affects human health, we need to address it. But then, through that Prop K conversation, what I also heard is, you need to be sensitive to ‘What is this going to cost the most vulnerable in our community?’
So emissions and energy are definitely takeaways. The Yearout Energy report was great in that it really showed us that if we’re going to be aggressive about renewable energy uptake, that’s what it’s going to cost. And that’s a great starting point for us now.
El Paso Matters: The Climate Action Plan is in its early phases and your office will seek community input on this in the coming months, but can you share some examples of what policies the city’s plan might contain?
Alderete-Ferrini: I’ll start by saying one of the plans in Texas that I admire the most is called the CECAP in Dallas. I really admire the approach they took. As a public servant, I have got to listen to the whole, and the biggest challenge in my job is bringing everybody to the table and having us all pull in the same direction.
As far as projects, though, I think there are several examples that I’m excited about. Everybody wants to go immediately to solar and (electric vehicles) and that’s great, fantastic. That’s fine. I would like to do that in a way that is very measured. And there are other ways for us to offset emissions.
When we take a look at the open space we have in our community and the opportunity to preserve more of it, you can garner a tremendous benefit from the preservation of open space and not creating those emissions in the first place.
We just did an urban heat mapping study not that long ago. And one of the areas that I found really interesting is (City Council District 5 on the far Eastside) because District 5 abuts undeveloped territory. And the coolest areas of District 5 were not the areas that had shade. The coolest areas are those that abutted open desert space on at least two sides. Because the desert knows how to do this. We came in and built on it and then created emissions and we created heat. So there is something to be said for preservation of open space, and I think that’s something that people don’t think of. They immediately go to ‘We’ve got to coat the entire city with solar panels.’ And I’m not saying solar is not a good idea. It is, but there are other strategies as well.
El Paso Matters: Opponents of Proposition K during the recent campaign often argued that it would not be impactful or worthwhile for the city of El Paso to invest in addressing climate change unless Ciudad Juárez acted in conjunction, given the nature of air pollution. Others, however, interpreted that as an argument for Juárez city leaders to dictate environmental policy in El Paso. How do you think about the need to collaborate with the city government in Juárez on El Paso’s Climate Action Plan?
Alderete-Ferrini: It is too simple to say ‘They’re not (addressing climate change), so we’re not either.’ No. That’s like saying ‘I’m not going to maintain my house and my yard because my neighbor’s is falling apart.’ That being said, it’s not wrong in that, with emissions or climate pollution in general, we can only move the needle so far within the jurisdictional boundaries of the city. So we’ve got to work with the county, we’ve got to work with the state of New Mexico, we’ve got to work with the state of Chihuahua and the country of Mexico. And that is not an easy hill to climb, but that doesn’t mean you don’t start climbing it. We’re having conversations right now. What we’ve said to the (Environmental Protection Agency) is ‘Look, if we’re going to move the needle, we need international collaboration.’
But I will also say there’s never been a greenhouse gas inventory in this community. We’ve only recently been able to really get a robust idea of air quality. We’re just barely getting the data. So this (argument that) ‘Oh, it’s Juárez, and if they don’t do anything, we’re stuck.’ Based on what data? This work cannot be emotional. This work has to be data driven and backed by science.
El Paso Matters: We saw opponents of Proposition K spend over $1 million to campaign against the ballot measure, including donations of $200,000 from El Paso Electric and $150,000 from Marathon Petroleum, which operates a refinery on the East Side. Does that significant amount of spending at all indicate to you the opposition you might encounter as your office crafts a plan for El Paso to act on climate change?
Alderete-Ferrini: No. As a small example, but indicative, we’re working on a project right now called 915 Tree Keepers, where we’re going to be planting trees in the right of way in different neighborhoods, particularly low-income neighborhoods, around the city. I have an additional $50,000 to do that because Marathon and El Paso Electric gave it to us. And so, to do that, to give us that kind of money in the aftermath of what’s just happened, was to me the olive branch. And we’re doing a tree-planting this Saturday (May 20th). It’s funded by El Paso Electric and Marathon, and who’s helping us plant the trees? Eco El Paso. (Eco El Paso is a nonprofit that advocated in favor of Proposition K).
This community has been pulled together over and over and over again. … And now we’re going to fight over climate and making our environment healthier and happier and more prosperous? Nobody disagrees with that. And so, as our approach, we will be bringing people together. And as a native El Pasoan and resident chingona, I will pull everybody kicking and screaming if I have to. We’re going to do it together.