Young People Power Texas Climate Plan

House Democrats package 41 bills to protect the environment

Rep. Gina Hinojosa (standing, third from right), lawmakers, and UT-Austin students gathered on April 8 in support of Hinojosa's Texas Climate Plan (Courtesy of Rep. Gina Hinojosa's office)

Texas is not known for its positive contributions to the ­climate movement. Runaway fracking, chemical plants, and the recent power grid failure have created widespread distrust and disappointment in state regulators. But Texas has a lot of promise too; it's the top generator of wind power in the country, and a prolific producer of solar.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, saw the potential for Texas to be a leader in the transition to clean energy after the last legislative session and hired a research team to assess the situation. "We found that Texas emits the most carbon dioxide of any other state by far – California comes in second, but [it] emits only half as much," she told the Chronicle. In response, Hinojosa put together the Texas Climate Plan, a package of 41 bills by 17 House Democrats, including several of her Central Texas colleagues. State Rep. Vikki Good­win, D-Austin, is carrying a bill to reduce flaring of natural gas in West Texas, and state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, has been working to increase public participation and transparency in the Texas Com­mis­sion on Environ­mental Quality permitting process for projects like the Kinder Morgan Permian Highway Pipeline that crosses her district in Hays County.

Though it cuts an impressive figure, Hinojosa says the package is largely symbolic: "When you work on issues like this, you're playing the long game ... In Texas, politically, it's hard to get these things done." What keeps her motivated is the energy of the next generation: As part of their campaign, her office organized teach-ins across the state to educate high school and college students. "I think people who have been attending," she said, "know more about the environment and what's causing global warming than most legislators."

UT-Austin's Students Fighting Climate Change group was founded in 2019. Currently, SFCC is pushing for more intersectional awareness in non-liberal arts courses and trying to get UT to formally recognize the climate crisis. "It's very worrying that one of the top public universities in the country, that is research-oriented and recognized for its research, doesn't have an official stance on this," says Luis Cam­arena, an officer of the group. But SFCC's main goal is UT's divestment from fossil fuels. Between them, the UT and Texas A&M systems derive substantial funding from the Permanent University Fund's 2.1 million-acre land holdings in West Texas. Hinojosa invited Lauren McKinney, SFCC's political campaign co-director, to speak at the unveiling of the Texas Climate Plan on April 8; she and Camarena are encouraged by Hinojosa's House Bill 1521, which would require UT to eliminate routine methane flaring on PUF lands by 2025.

But they're also facing obstacles at the Lege. The biggest, McKinney says, is a bill that "if passed, which it looks like it's going to, has the potential to make it impossible for UT to divest because they get state funds." Senate Bill 13, which has already passed the Senate, and HB 2189 "essentially direct [state] funds to divest from companies that have divested from fossil fuels," explains Camarena, jeopardizing their entire campaign. Though that's "disheartening," McKin­ney and Camarena are encouraged by the other flaring regulations in the package. "I think that the biggest obstacle is kind of this knee-jerk belief that you're [either] for the economy or for the environment," says Hino­jo­sa. "In fact, if university lands captured their natural gas and put it on the market, they [would] just make more money for the universities."

It's these "win-win opportunities," as Hinojo­sa describes them, that have the best chance of passing; she says investing in electric vehicles and making sure jobs are prioritized in the switch to clean energy are paramount. And despite setbacks, she still has faith in the "Greta Thunberg effect": "Politicians want to be a part of something that's exciting to younger generations. When they see the enthusiasm ... I think it provides, not just [a] kind of cover politically, but an opportunity politically, even for Democrat[s]."

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