A climate game plan for Texas
As America's number 1 polluter, Texas has to be part of the solution
You’ve probably seen yesterday’s headlines on the grave new report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It warns of increasingly extreme and deadly heatwaves, droughts and flooding without “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
As America’s number one polluter (and the world’s 8th largest, just behind South Korea), Texas has to be central to efforts to decarbonize. But how? Most of our state’s political leadership won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change much less push for aggressive action to cut pollution.
After working in Texas politics for more than two decades I’ll be the first to admit it’s a tough row to hoe. And yet, in that time, I’ve seen significant progress that gives me hope that we can do it.
When I first moved to Texas the state had hardly any wind or solar energy. Today we get more than 25% of our electricity from clean renewable energy (and more wind power than any other state!) Energy companies are working to build an additional 150 gigawatts of wind, solar and storage (almost four times our current capacity.)
“Who Killed The Electric Car?” was a popular film (at least among us greenies) earlier in my career. Now, 52,000 electric cars are expected in Austin alone two years from now. Cities across the state are investing in EV charging infrastructure, electric buses, light rail, electric bikes, bike lanes and sidewalks.
My daughters and me on our new electric bike.
To be clear, we need to do much, much more to hit the emissions reductions scientists tell us we need. But the ball is rolling now and it’ll be easier to increase momentum. Here’s how I see our path forward:
We need to push toward 100% clean energy.
As we discussed in last month’s 100% Clean Energy for Texas webinar, there is broad agreement among researchers that an energy system powered by renewable sources is within reach. Texas alone has the technical potential to meet our energy needs many times over with wind and solar energy. Rooftop PV alone could meet 32% of our current energy demand, with offshore wind able to meet demand 1.7 times over, onshore wind 13 times and utility-scale PV 96 times over. (Check out Dr. Dan Cohan’s and Emma Searson’s presentations for more detail on how we can get there).
Texans support such a goal. Renewable energy, especially solar power, is incredibly popular. A poll taken after Winter Storm Uri found that 56% of Texans think the number one goal of energy policy should be to achieve 100% clean energy. And Texas has a robust coalition of groups, academics, businesses and legislators working on solutions.
So with the technology available and the people behind us, here’s my take on our path forward. We need to:
Defend renewable energy. As I wrote earlier, renewable energy is booming in Texas. The first order of business is to prevent obstacles to that growth. We helped fend off attacks on renewables during the legislative session, but now we see new ones at the Public Utility Commission. Last month, Gov. Abbott wrote the PUC and urged them to adopt rules to increase costs for wind and solar, a move which would surely slow the growth of renewable energy.
Get Texas cities to continue to lead on climate solutions. Our report Cleaner, Cheaper Power makes the case that cities in Texas’ deregulated electric marketplace can use existing law to make significant investments in wind and solar by pooling the electricity purchasing power of their residents. Cities can also adopt policies to promote electric vehicles, more energy efficient building codes, better land use initiatives, and more.
Press Texas’ congressional delegation to support climate solutions. With 38 (soon to be 40) members in Texas’ delegation to Congress and with assignments on key committees, Texas representatives and senators could be decisive in Congress on climate solutions such as ending drilling in the Arctic and other public lands and waters, extending tax credits for clean energy, fuel economy standards, and more.
Stop new fossil fuel infrastructure and reduce damage from existing oil and gas. We can’t afford to lock in decades of more global warming pollution with new pipelines, gas power plants, LNG facilities or petrochemical plants. And we must act immediately to cut flaring of natural gas (including on land owned by the University of Texas), fugitive methane emissions, leaking abandoned oil wells, and some of the other worst practices of oil and gas.
Hold polluters accountable. Industrial facilities illegally released over 174 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution (including CO2) in 2019. We’ve successfully sued four facilities, including ExxonMobil’s massive Baytown facility, for violating the Clean Air Act and have our eyes on many others.
Close coal power plants. 11 of Texas’ 20 coal-burning power plants have either closed or have plans to close (or switch to gas), which is terrific, but we’ve got to close them all, including the Fayette plant outside Austin, the Spruce plants in San Antonio and the W.A. Parish plant outside of Houston.
Build support for bold action. We need to unite people from all across the political spectrum around action on global warming, whether it’s Texans excited about electric pickup trucks or small business owners who can benefit from smart climate action programs. We need to keep building coalitions that include doctors and nurses, religious leaders and educators, and people from all walks of life (see, for example, our new Voices for 100% Renewable Energy project). We need to keep knocking on doors and talking to people face to face and more. If the people lead, our leaders will follow.
None of these are easy. And we’ll need to do much more than this. But I truly believe all of these are doable, even in Texas, and together they would move us a long way toward a greener, healthier Texas.
Executive Director, Environment Texas
As the executive director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation, renewable energy and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughters are working to visit every state park in Texas.