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Climate Justice on the Ballot in El Paso: Crystal Moran & Mike Siegel

Article published:
Posed shot of members of Sunrise El Paso celebrating after they turned in more than 40,000 signatures to qualify the Climate Charter for the May 2023 ballot.

A proposed El Paso City Charter amendment—put forward by grassroots organizers—would create green economic growth, investments in conservation and infrastructure, and democratic control over special interests.

On May 6, voters in El Paso, TX will decide on Prop K, the Climate Charter amendment that would pave the way for a Green New Deal in this metropolitan area of 985,000 residents, 81% of whom are Latinx.  The Prop K campaign has placed environmental racism and local control over powerful corporate interests squarely before the public. It grows out of decades of organizing and resistance in El Paso and the frontera communities—from El Paso and Doña Ana Counties to Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Eddie Wong interviewed Crystal Moran and Mike Siegel for Convergence. Moran is a local Chicanx, Indigenous community organizer working in environmental, immigration, and social justice. She was born and raised in El Paso. She is a co-founder of Frontera Water Protectors and Sunrise El Paso. Siegel, one of the co-founders of Ground Game Texas, was the former City Attorney of Austin, TX and ran for the US Congress in 2018 and 2020. They were interviewed separately, and their comments have been edited for this article.

Eddie WongHow did Sunrise Movement El Paso start?

Crystal Moran: Sunrise El Paso was co-founded in September 2019 with its first rally being for the Global Climate Strike. Soon after that the fight to stop the sale of El Paso Electric to JP Morgan became our main focus. With the sale of El Paso Electric in 2020, came the fight against the expansion of the Newman 6 gas plant in Chaparral, NM. After El Paso Electric was sued in 2021, the Chaparral Community Coalition decided that they wanted to direct funds for a community-led initiative for climate justice, which came to be known as the Climate Charter.

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The Climate Charter will amend the city charter to include a climate policy that will:

  • conserve and protect our water;
  • create climate jobs;
  • prepare our city for extreme weather events;
  • install rooftop solar on City infrastructure;
  • study the feasibility of municipalizing El Paso Electric;
  • create a climate department within City government with a Climate Director to ensure that the climate charter is advanced and reports annually to city council its progress and provide an annual report on emissions generated in the city for transparency among residents of El Paso; and
  • create a climate commission made up of residents of El Paso to oversee and ensure implementation of the climate charter and to hold the Climate Director accountable.

Eddie Wong: Tell us about the collaboration between Sunrise Movement El Paso and Ground Game Texas. How did you map out strategies to qualify the ballot measures?

Crystal Moran: We (Sunrise El Paso) partnered with Ground Game Texas in 2021 after they reached out to us, impressed with our work against the Newman 6 gas plant, wanting to create a campaign with us to pass local legislation. We began brainstorming and strategizing ways that direct democracy could intersect climate justice with the input of local movement leaders, activists, and organizations. The result was the Climate Charter amendment. Ground Game TX is serving as a legal counsel and guide, while Sunrise El Paso is on the ground running this campaign.

Mike Siegel: What I first noticed is they got a sign-on letter of 40 to 60 environmental and indigenous and other groups.  I could tell they were doing real organizing and they fought so hard that El Paso Electric, in order to build the Newman 6 plant, agreed to shut three other fossil fuel-powered electric plants within a certain amount of time and also agreed to pay a community benefits agreement to the neighbors of the new fracked gas plant.  So, I started speaking with them almost two years ago. We spent six to eight months drafting a policy.  We collected 39,000 signatures. There’s never been a grassroots campaign in El Paso that gathered this many signatures. But we had to survive multiple roadblocks put in place by the city bureaucracy. After they admitted we had enough signatures, they tried to break up our proposition into eight different propositions to basically divide and conquer, and we had to successfully lobby against that. And so now we’re on the ballot on May 6.

Eddie Wong: Did the fact that El Paso weather has steadily become hotterwith temperatures well into the 90s to over 100 in the spring to summer months, compounded with flooding from torrential rainsmake people more willing to sign the petition for the Charter amendment?

Crystal Moran: The weather in El Paso, especially the heat and flash floods, have absolutely gotten worse over the years, but what is also just as or even more concerning was the fact that El Paso has severe air pollution—ranking 12th in the nation for ozone—and the fact that our electricity is generated by dirty natural gas via the Permian Basin.  The Permian Basin is also known as the “climate bomb” and is one of the largest oil fields in the world. (Note: the Permian Basin is roughly the size of Great Britain and El Paso sits on the edge of it.)

El Paso Electric also seeks to worsen air pollution by its plans to expand old gas plants without any concern for the high respiratory health risks that poses for low income Chicanx/Latinx and working-class communities. They also intend to continue business in the Permian Basin, and do not have any real plan or goals for transitioning to renewable energies anytime soon, as their records show several gas plants to be open way beyond 2045.

Eddie Wong: What provisions in Prop K resonate most with El Pasoans?

Crystal Moran: El Pasoans want the “Sun City” to generate energy using solar energy. We are the tenth sunniest city in the world, yet our electric utility utilizes less than 5% of solar energy.

Our water resources are sacred and scarce, and we need to protect them and especially prevent our water from being sold to fossil fuel activities outside of our city. Fracking in the Permian Basin is projected to double by 2030 and uses up to 16 million gallons of water to frack one well. We need and want our water for our community plain and simple. El Pasoans also want to see climate jobs being created and align with creating prosperity in El Paso.

Eddie Wong: How have corporate interests responded to this grassroots initiative?

Mike Siegel: We are facing a full-on assault in both paid communications and media against our campaign. The Chamber of Commerce has taken this as a direct attack on them. They commissioned a firm from Boise, ID to produce an economic impact report that alleged we’d basically be killing hundreds of thousands of jobs and costing the city billions of dollars.  Total junk science. They’ve been really effectively manipulating the communications landscape against us and at the same time doing mail five to six weeks before the election to try to pollute the electorate. We even did a poll recently where we found that if voters hear the negative messages from El Paso Electric versus our message—that the climate crisis is real, let’s create solutions here in El Paso—if they hear both messages, we win. But we just have to make sure we’re communicating with as many people as possible by Election Day. 

Crystal Moran: El Paso’s fossil fuel industry and corporate private interests

are attacking the Climate Charter and spreading disinformation because the Charter will certainly hurt their quarterly revenues and deep pockets. It is clear that their slogan is “profit over people.” They care more about making profit off the cancer-causing, extremely harmful oil and gas industry than they do about the severe air pollution and smog, increasing respiratory illnesses, scarce water supply, and our future generations in El Paso.

Mike Siegel: What’s so threatening about our proposition is that it says you will have a position called Climate Director and that person will be responsible before every major decision to produce a climate impact report, i.e., how does city action influence emissions, promote renewables and impact climate justice? And it’s that third prong of the climate policy which is probably most threatening because so much of industry and pollution in El Paso is centered on the most disadvantaged and voiceless communities, i.e., the Borderlands neighborhood/the Chamizal where they located a bus depot, the area around the International Bridge/Segundo Barrio, and the community in Central El Paso where there’s a refinery owned by Marathon Petroleum Corporation. Those are the communities that we want to protect with the Charter so that future city decisions that impact air quality or water quality in those communities will be subject to new review. That doesn’t exist under their current city framework. 

Eddie Wong: How is the campaign building support now that you’re a few weeks out from the election?

Crystal Moran: The Climate Charter is very popular in El Paso; almost 40,000 El Pasoans signed onto the petition putting the Charter on the ballot. This was by far more than any turnout for an El Paso election. In addition, we are door-knocking like crazy, and we have accomplished our goal of collecting 10% of voter pledges to go vote yes for the Climate Charter on May 6. But we aren’t stopping there. Our goal is to collect 20% of voter pledges so that it is not such a close vote.

These goals are definitely including early voting, as we know that more people over 30 tend to vote during early voting and is a larger voter base. We are sending mailers, phoning, and text banking and working tirelessly every day to send the message to our early voting population of the importance of the Climate Charter. We are also definitely working just as hard every day to reach those under the age of 30 and get them out to vote through social media posts and community events.

Other Sunrise hubs are helping us out by volunteering to phone and text banking for us. People outside of our community can help in a big way by funding the movement  and volunteering to phone and text bank.

Mike Siegel: I really love this campaign. You can judge the merits of the campaign by your adversaries. And in this case, not only is the Chamber of Commerce fighting us, not only are statewide elected officials writing Op Eds in the El Paso Times, the Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill to ban any other city from adopting a climate charter.  You know, we’re onto something when they’re fighting this hard, so I’m really glad to be working with the folks in El Paso on Prop. K.

Featured image: Sunrise El Paso posing for a group photo after turning in almost 40,000 signatures to the City Clerk and were accepted. Photo courtesy of Sunrise El Paso.

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