WORDS BY GABY DEL VALLE
Texas voters are hitting the polls to decide who will hold a key congressional seat. The Frontline dives into the climate reality facing Texans.
The Texas race between immigration attorney-turned-candidate Jessica Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar is in its final moments, and its outcome is already being framed as a referendum on everything from reproductive rights to immigration—and a litmus test of Latine voters’ interest in progressive politics. The runoff election on Tuesday carries national implications. They’re fighting for a seat in Congress during a time of extreme division (even among the Democratic Party). Closer to home, environmental justice activists are hoping that Cisneros, a progressive running to unseat the 17-year incumbent, has what it takes to replace a politician who has been called “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat.”
A Cisneros victory would signal a major shift in South Texas, where the oil industry dominates—and where Cuellar has characterized a shift to renewable energy as out-of-touch with what voters actually want. The victor would mostly have the power to affect policy at the national level, but the race still has major implications for local communities that need federal support.
Texas has faced several climate-related emergencies over the past few years: the 2021 big freeze, which led to statewide power outages since Texas’s oil-and-gas-fueled power grid was vulnerable to low temperatures; the February water crisis in Laredo, during which residents were told to boil their tap water and 125,000 lost access altogether after a water main burst; and a recent methane leak in Webb County. Paris Moran, a digital director with the Sunrise Movement (which endorsed Cisneros), pointed to these events as evidence that the climate crisis has reached Texas, explaining that the inadequate response from elected officials showed her the urgency for a political shift.
“When we saw all of these crises happen, Henry Cuellar was nowhere to be found,” said Moran, who is from San Antonio (which is in the 28th District that Cuellar represents). “Meanwhile, you saw organizers like Jessica on the ground helping out their communities, showing up when the government wasn’t.”
Cisneros was among the Laredo residents whose water was shut off for several days this February. The candidate told HuffPost that in the days leading up to the first primary election in March, she had to shower at a friend’s house because the water in her home was shut off. Cisneros told HuffPost that the water crisis was indicative of how little Cuellar had done for their community. Cuellar, meanwhile, told the Laredo Morning Times that the city’s water problems were a “local issue” out of his control. “City council should have done the replacement for many years—they just never did,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar is the only Texas Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which handles federal budget allocations. There, he has the ability to allocate funds to local communities, which his campaign has said makes him an unparalleled asset to the 28th District. Cuellar’s advocates have praised him for securing funding for a water treatment plant in Laredo, and his office sent HuffPost documentation of that effort, as well as his communications with the local government after the water main ruptured.
Cuellar was one of four House Democrats to vote against the Stream Protection Rule in 2017 and has repeatedly voted against clean water protections, according to a memo provided by Justice Democrats (which endorsed Cisneros). (Cuellar and Cisneros’s campaigns did not respond to Atmos’s requests for comment.)
Cuellar also received $66,500 from oil-and-gas aligned PACs in the first three quarters of 2021—more so than any other House Democrat. Cisneros, who challenged Cuellar in 2020 and lost to him by just four percentage points, has pledged to not take any dollars from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, she has centered her platform around a Green New Deal, which would fund a transition to renewable energy. Despite the Cuellar campaign’s characterization of Cisneros as too far to the left to appeal to South Texas Democrats, she got 46.9% of votes during the first round in March—Cuellar got 48.4%. Neither candidate passed the 50% threshold, triggering a runoff election.
Cisneros has received endorsements from a number of environmental organizations, including the Green New Deal Network, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, Cuellar has received endorsements from much of the Democratic establishment, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter endorsed Cisneros because she acknowledges that climate change is already occurring and affects the people of the 28th District, said Matthew Johnson, the chapter’s communications and political director. Indeed, the science shows rising global temperatures are already affecting Texas. Researchers found that Hurricane Harvey, which tore through the state in 2017, was made worse by climate change. Johnson said in an email that politicians who oppose strong climate action “have long-used the Green New Deal as a pejorative.”
“By working together, we can rewrite the rules here in Texas to ensure everyone can thrive.”
“Wealthy fossil fuel corporations like those who have contributed to Cuellar’s campaign want Texans to think pollution and progress are inseparable,” he said. “By working together, we can rewrite the rules here in Texas to ensure everyone can thrive.”
In 2019, Cuellar said that a Green New Deal would “kill jobs for hard-working Texans.” In February, a Cuellar staffer told The Hill that there are 40,000 oil and gas-related jobs in the 28th District, suggesting that a shift toward renewable energy would come at the cost of Texans’ livelihoods.
Many of these jobs, however, have harmed local communities, said Virginia Palacios, the executive director of the nonpartisan group Commission Shift, a statewide organization that acts as a watchdog over Texas’s Railroad Commission (which oversees the state’s oil and gas development). Shale gas drilling (or fracking) has been found to increase contaminants in drinking water, is tied to a higher risk for asthma, and can contribute to insomnia and sleep problems. Palacios pointed to a 2020 study that found that women in South Texas who lived in areas with high amounts of venting and flaring—controlled burns of natural gas that is then released into the atmosphere—were 50% more likely to experience preterm birth.
“These results were only found for Hispanic women, not for any other race or ethnicity in the study,” Palacios said. “It’s frustrating for myself and for women in my age group. I’m in my early 30s—if I want to have kids, what’s going to happen?”
What the industry has created is significantly different from what it promised. Back in 2011, oil and gas operators said fracking would “bring all these riches” to South Texas, said Palacios, a ninth-generation Texan from Webb County.
“They were promising the world, and people were getting really excited because this is a really high-poverty area,” Palacios said. “The idea of this big industry coming in with all of these jobs was really tantalizing to folks.”
“They were promising the world, and people were getting really excited because this is a really high-poverty area.”
The reality hasn’t been as rosy. The pandemic ushered in the worst Texas oil bust in decades, causing tens of thousands of people to lose their jobs. Nowadays, the industry has rebounded, but local communities continue to be trapped in boom and bust cycles, making prosperity fleeting.
“We really need to weigh whether we’re getting what we need to get out of this, especially when you consider climate change,” Palacios said.
Scientists have made clear a transition to renewables is needed—both to protect public health from these pollutants and to ensure a livable planet is possible. Continuing to rely on fossil fuels will harm local communities no matter how energy companies try to package it. The urgency is even more palpable this week as elections are underway. Moran from Sunrise can point to at least one party who has won time and time again.
“Ultimately, who’s winning after all these crises?” she asked. “The fossil fuel industry and the massive companies…that are continuing to exploit the people in this district.”