Industry-funded Group Calls for Natural Gas to be a Part of Houston's Climate Plan

Sat, September 07, 2019

Original Article - Perla Trevizo, Houston Chronicle


While the city’s proposed climate action plan has been generally well received, an industry-funded group is calling Houston out for not explicitly mentioning natural gas as a solution.

Houston’s 16-page plan calls for increasing the generation of renewable energy, greater investment in “green infrastructure” and expanding the use of alternative modes of transportation by making it easier for residents to walk, ride their bikes or use public transit.

The plan includes a goal that municipal operations are powered with 100 percent renewable energy and advocates for renewable energy policies at the state and federal levels.

Texans for Natural Gas, founded in North Texas in 2014 and supported by the state’s leading energy companies, recently launched a campaign asking people to let the mayor and city council members know they were concerned about the city’s plan and supported the continued use of natural gas as part of any climate change strategy.

Everly said they wanted to give people an opportunity to learn about some of the details in the plan, to give them a voice and a space to join others who also have concerns. They launched a similar campaign earlier this year in San Antonio.

Houston unveiled its first draft of the plan in July and had given the public through August to submit comments. A final version is expected to be released in December.

The city received about 170 comments, including some who filled out the Texans for Natural Gas petition over the last several days. Many who made comments commended Houston for taking this first step, while asking that the city incorporate ways to monitor and verify progress made, as well as reviewing and updating the greenhouse gas inventory every two years.

Others, particularly from the industry, included objections to some of the language used and asked the city to make it clearer it wasn’t advocating for a single type of fuel.

For Texans for Natural Gas, “no climate plan for Houston can be considered legitimate unless it utilizes an abundant, clean burning, and Texas made fuel like natural gas,” according to the online petition.

Oil and natural gas in Texas generated more than $12 billion in taxes in 2017 alone, the group says. And the industry directly supports nearly 350,000 jobs at an average salary of more than $130,000, Everly said, and natural gas can be credited for Texans paying less than the national average for electricity.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a written statement that the city’s climate action plan was published to generate comments by industry and the public.

“We want the dialogue to begin with consumers and energy producers to lessen carbon emissions,” Turner said. “The letters we have received are clearly an important part of that dialogue and we intend to set up multiple public forums to achieve a viable climate action plan for Houston. We are not at a final stage yet, but appreciate all the input we are receiving.”

Weeks after the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate agreement in 2017, Turner joined other mayors in committing to adopt its goals, which include becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2050.

More than 400 cities in 48 states have made similar pledges. In Texas, Austin has led the way for more than a decade. San Antonio and Houston more recently unveiled their own proposals and Dallas is working on theirs.

Houston has one of the largest per capita greenhouse emissions in the country. In 2014, Houston residents and businesses generated 35 million tons of greenhouse gases through carbon-fueled buildings, cars and waste. A number that could rise to at least 45 million per year by 2050 if nothing is done, officials have said.

“It is clear that all forms are necessary to sustain worldwide economic growth. That said, we see that renewable energy forms are going to be an increasing component to the Houston energy industry. We want to promote that,” Turner added.

Texans for Natural Gas point out how an increased use of natural gas nationwide has prevented nearly 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions since 2006, Everley said.

While carbon emissions have been reduced by switching from coal to natural gas, at the same time methane has gone up, said author Bill McKibben, a renowned environmentalist..

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a heat-trapping gas about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“So what we really need to do is move past fossil fuels altogether and into really clean energy and that is now possible because we can generate electricity using sun or wind as cheaply as we can generate it using natural gas,” he added.

McKibben will be in Houston on Sept. 15, where Turner will also do a Q&A about climate change and local planning, an event criticized by Everely, who has called McKibben one of the “most aggressive anti-fossil fuel activists in the world.”

From a climate perspective, the science shows that natural gas, particularly if methane emissions are controlled, can be better than coal, said Colin Leyden, with the Environmental Defense Fund,“but eventually you will run out of coal plants to replace,”

And while natural gas can remain a tool in the fight against climate change under some circumstances, he said, meeting the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 means the industry will have to find a way to expand their capabilities to store and use the carbon they emit.

In Texas, despite differences among the cities’ climate plans, some criticism, especially from the industry, is to be expected as they try to implement some of the tougher measures, said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, who is in support of the city’s plan.

San Antonio’s plan, known as SA Climate Ready, has been in the works for years in a piecemeal sort of way. But in the summer of 2017, the newly minted mayor and City Council adopted a resolution in support of the Paris climate accord, putting into motion the eventual drafting of the controversial plan.

The city recently unveiled its recast plan, after the initial proposal triggered concerns some major fossil-fuel-based employers headquartered there would leave. The council is expected to deliberate its adoption on Oct. 17.

And in Austin, there have been occasional pushes in the legislation against some of the measures the city has taken, including one to deregulate energy to make Austin more like Houston, Metzger said.

“The biggest challenge will be the legislature chipping away on municipal control,” he said.

The other will be mitigating the impact on communities, as some actions require more drastic changesand greater efforts from local governments to step in and help those impacted, he said.

But so far, “I haven’t seen a real opposition to Houston,” he said.