10-1: San Antonio Council embraces climate action

CAAP supporters at Thursday’s City Council meeting. Image: Greg Harman

CPS Energy’s coal plant, implementation agenda, remain challenges to success

Greg Harman

Last week, the San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 in favor of a climate plan intended to drive the City’s climate pollution to zero by 2050 and better prepare residents for the extreme weather accelerated by global warming. The result caps a two-year campaign of the Sierra Club and our many coalition allies with Climate Action SA.

Passage of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (PDF), resisted by local and state oil and gas interests, among others, makes San Antonio the second city in the state after Austin (also driving to 2050) to adopt a climate plan. Houston and Dallas are queuing up to be next.

Our commitment was actually made well before the Council meeting of Thursday, October 17. It was a decision made two years ago.

After Donald Trump announced he was walking the US back from its commitment to collaborate with the international community to solve the climate crisis, San Antonians rose up.

We joined likeminded people around the nation to make sure we filled as best we could the gap left by White House hostility. In the midst of a 2017 mayoral runoff election, San Antonio residents demanded our next mayor stand up in the face of White House denialism.

The national response became known as We Are Still In. Locally, newly elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg inspired eight members of City Council to approve a Paris solidarity statement (PDF). It committed the City to meeting the goals of Paris and embark on a cost-benefit analysis to spell out what that decision meant in terms of social and economic impacts.


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Nirenberg and Sandoval w/ climate action banner

Nirenberg and Sandoval join a group of concerned residents in 2017 before a banner calling for climate action. Image: Greg Harman

In spite of nearly two years of work, that cost-benefit analysis never arrived, much to the chagrin of District 10 Councilmember Clayton Perry and others eager to decry the “billion-dollar boondoggle” (See: “Factchecking the Texas Public Policy Foundation”). Plan authors fretted over how to measure the cost of inaction in climate crisis while keeping the region’s largest climate offender—City-owned CPS Energy—hidden from view. It was just one of the missed opportunities of the CAAP.

The CAAP has no roadmap toward meeting our obligations toward limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, because of strong community pressure, there is now a compass needle pointing to sector-based emission reductions targets totaling 41 percent city-wide reductions by 2030; 71 percent city-wide reductions by 2040; and 100 percent city-wide reductions by 2050.

Detail from the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

After a nod to the City’s 2017 commitments, Nirenberg announced before Thursday’s vote that San Antonians would no longer be “bystanders” in what he described as a “climate emergency.” While promising the City would pursue all of the recommendations of the plan, he sought to assure action-minded skeptics that “everything is on the table.”

In his comments, Dr. Terry Burns, chair of the San Antonio Sierra Club, challenged what he called CPS Energy’s obstruction in the process and called for Council intervention in the structure of the CPS Board of Trustees or removal of CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams if the community relationship with the utility does not improve.

His comments were supported by the message delivered with the morning paper.

As the San Antonio Express-News editorial board wrote:

Out of thousands of responses [to the CAAP], the No. 2-ranked comment was a call to end the use of fossil fuels — in part by closing all coal plants by 2025, according to a feedback summary released by the city.

Curious, then, that the final draft of the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, to be voted on by City Council, makes no mention of CPS Energy’s coal-fired plants.

Curious, until you realize CPS Energy, as early as April, was lobbying against language in the plan’s first draft that sought zero emissions.

It is a wonder: that 4.3 million tons of the utility’s pollution was discounted in the CAAP’s greenhouse inventory; that the plant that pumps out 8 million metric tons of GHG annually is nowhere named in the CAAP; that coal is only referenced on two of the plan’s pages outside the appendix. A wonder, but not unthinkable for those familiar with San Antonio politics.

CPS Energy funds the City to a large degree.

They eagerly volunteered to pay for the development of the $500,000 Climate Action Plan.

And they made sure language that would have forced them to abandon fossil fuels by 2050 was erased. The plan went from a promise to “phase out generation from all fossil fuel sources” to one that will “reduce generation from all fossil fuel sources.” We were no longer pledged to “reach an emissions factor of 0.0 kg CO2e / kWh by 2050,” but, rather, a “drive towards carbon neutrality by 2050.”

However, two years of broad-based activism targeting our elected leaders ensured that the JK Spruce coal plant was the center of discussion on the day of the vote—as it will be every day going forward as we talk about putting this plan into action.

Pursuing Spruce on an accelerated retirement schedule was a discussion point of Mayor Nirenberg, as it was for District 9 Councilmember John Courage. District 7 Councilmember Ana Sandoval used a bit of sugar in delivering the message that, to meaningfully move forward, CPS needs to open their accounting books on the cost of energy generation to a broader community.

“Some of the numbers that we were missing was detailed information on the cost of eliminating the coal plant or moving over to solar power,” she said.

“We trust our friends at CPS. They are the experts. That’s also a dialogue we need to have with all our stakeholders at the table,” she said. “So what I look forward is having CPS bring all those numbers forward. … We simply can not get there without this kind of information at the table.”

Here’s Sandoval’s full statement:

Gold-Williams

Gold-Williams

For her part, CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams continued to push back against such talk.

In April, she specifically rejected the idea of creating an energy generation committee including members from the City of San Antonio and the public (PDF). In apparent response, the Office of Sustainability struck language from the plan that would have done just that.

Last week, the day before the vote, CPS Energy pushed out a press release on national PR newswires in which Gold-Williams agreed to pursue the goals of the plan, but warned, in Trumpian hyperbolic fashion, that poor energy choices made in moving toward the agreed-upon 2050 goal “could make San Antonio one of the most expensive energy markets in Texas, and perhaps, the nation.

Here, again, she was at odds with the community, City Council, and the Express-News, the last of which argued in its Thursday editorial:

[Spruce] is a money drain, with estimated losses of $135 million in 2015 and 2016.

Last year, the utility spent $27 million to replace its faulty generator. That same year, a report from Moody’s Investor Service, a leading credit rating company, showed the plant was running at less than half its capacity and was among the most expensive run by a city or cooperative in the country.

Also last year, a study commissioned by the Sierra Club estimated that running Spruce 2 between 2012 and 2016 cost $36 million more than market alternatives.”

While few of those who aggressively resisted the plan earlier in the year bothered to show up at the vote—such as the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Valero Energy, and Texas Public Policy Foundation—there were some denialist odds and ends in attendance.

David Fry, head of the governmental affairs committee for the Manufacturers Association and human resources director at Cox Manufacturing, opened with a Bible passage before lambasting climate science as “more of an ideology than it is science.”

One-time San Antonio mayoral candidate and self-described investigative journalist Will McLeod declared that “only God controls the climate” before outing Al Gore as a “false prophet who should be indicted.”

In truth, supporters were also in short supply compared to the hundreds who organized for action two years ago. The softening of target language and ambiguity around CPS Energy in the CAAP have reduced community buy-in while failing to significantly woo over the business leadership.

(Another example: Objections from the automobile dealers to a 2050 goal for “100 percent penetration” of “carbon-free vehicles” now meekly seeks the “accelerated adoption of … cleaner and more efficient vehicle technologies.”)

Among the few dozen in attendance supporting the vote were, pictured here, members of MOVE Texas, Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, and Public Citizen. Image: Greg Harman

Given the struggle involved in advancing the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan across two years of controversy and complication, it’s tempting for supporters to embrace its passage as a heroic crossing of the finish line. Or for elected leaders to see it as sufficiently capping an outstanding promise. But if San Antonio is going to truly meet its 2017 promise to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, in both our carbon reductions and engagement with climate justice, we’ll have to fast overcome the CAAP’s shortcomings.

The frequent references to Spruce by Council members and the Mayor seem to suggest at least that much is understood.

When it comes to the realization of a equity-based climate action plan for San Antonio, with CPS Energy at the center of the equation, both sides appear to agree, this vote is merely the beginning. Trust in City leadership will inevitably come slowly for many, given the sense of betrayal that comes with such a weakened plan. For all the earnest urgent expressions of Council to move into action, the first opportunity to build this trust won’t come for some time, with the CAAP’s Implementation and Equity Committees intended to guide the process not being empaneled for several months yet.

The makeup of those bodies and authorities entrusted to them will go a long way in signaling the City’s intentions going forward as the plan-in-action is activated. But the critical first reduction strategy, the obvious target, lies with the City’s utility, source of the majority of our emissions, and operator of the most economic opportunity for success.

Hopefully, this Council seizes that opportunity with the same damn-near unanimity as they did the CAAP itself.

See full meeting video here.

Read the final version of the CAAP below.

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