FEATURE: The Green New Deal and Houston, the energy capital of the world

by | Apr 30, 2019 | Environment, Policy

At a rally in Houston last week, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders reassured Houstonians the Green New Deal would not leave them out to dry.

“I know what city I’m in,” Sanders said while stumping for the 10-year plan to mobilize the U.S. into reaching net-zero carbon pollution.

“We’re not here to blame the workers in the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “They are not our enemies… our enemy is climate change.”

The Houston Reality

It’s understandable why Sanders would speak to the anxiety of transitioning into renewable energy in Houston, a city whose economic strength has long rested on the price of crude oil.

Even Houstonians who work far from oil refineries, pipelines, and pumps know how dependent their livelihood can be on the city’s biggest business.

For example, about one in 12 Houstonians lost their jobs during the mid-1980s oil bust. During the more recent oil slump of 2015-16, about one in four oil & gas workers in Houston lost their jobs– an incredible statistic given almost a third of the nation’s oil & gas jobs are found in Bayou City.

In other words, many Houstonians reflexively know that when things in the energy industry go wrong, life gets more difficult.

“For Texas, the number one oil & gas electricity generator, [the transition to green energy] is going to be very expensive,” Michael D. Maher, Ph.D., a senior program advisor for the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute, told the Texas Signal. “Not only raising the cost of what we buy, but implications for the job market, given so much of our economy is tied to chemicals, oil, and gas.”

But difficult or not, these monumental changes need to happen said Luke Metzger, the Executive Director of Environment Texas, a large nonprofit that works on a wide range of environmental advocacy issues.

“It’s going to be a major transition, one that will be quite beneficial to the issues that Houston continues to struggle with, like hurricanes such as Harvey and air pollution,” Metzger said.

The cloud around the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is the long-term plan to end carbon emissions over 10 years by using clean, renewable energy and to create jobs in the process. Nearly 60 percent of voters support the Green New Deal, according to the progressive think tank Data Progress.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ed Markey laid out a vision for the Green New Deal in February, but the rollout was less than smooth. A fact sheet on the plan put out by AOC’s office, obtained via FactCheck.org, stated, “We aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes,” to explain why the goal isn’t actually zero emissions (it’s net zero) by 2030.

While bovine flatulence undoubtedly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, cow talk is overshadowing what the plan is really about — not to mention serving as a rallying cry for extreme conservatives.

According to a new poll by the Green Advocacy Project, Republicans have heard of the Green New Deal much more than Democrats since early February.

As Vox has noted, “Committed right-wingers, most of the Fox audience, have heard about the GND, and they hate it. Committed progressives simply haven’t been told as much about it; they haven’t heard a clear signal to rally around it.”

Perhaps cow farts have clouded everything. But selling a public policy is just as important as creating one.

What it takes to get Houstonians on board

For Houstonians, that includes cutting back on emissions just like everyone else, but also trying to save the working communities that flocked to Houston because of its thriving energy business.

Already, ideas are being floated around about how to include Houston and the oil & gas industry as part of the solution to climate change. Houston Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher recently wrote a Houston Chronicle opinion piece, “To fix global warming, the world needs Houston,” suggesting a less top-down approach than the GND, one that focuses more on innovations within the industry, like carbon capture.

She questioned the timeline of the GND. “Among its central proposals is one to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030,” she wrote. “Most experts tell us this is impossible.”

Whatever climate change proposal Washington ends up getting behind — and it should be something — Texas, given our energy economy, is primed to lead the way. And as Houston goes, so goes the nation.

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