EL PASO TOXIC TOUR
by Miguel Escoto, Oilfield Witness Organizing Director
Oilfield Witness and the community organization Amanecer People’s Project provided a toxic tour of El Paso to a representative from Congressman Ro Khanna’s office. (Republican’s threats to shutdown the government in late September prevented Ro from coming down to West Texas in person). Khanna has been an important voice in Congress keeping Big Oil accountable. Last year, he led an important House Oversight Committee investigation into Big Oil and its role in misleading the American public about climate change.
The morning of September 30th, El Paso community members, Amanecer People’s Project organizers, Khanna’s representative, Sharon and I packed into a van. (The OGI camera took up a whole seat). I began the tour by stating some context about El Paso’s pollution crisis: El Paso is the 14th most polluted city in the county when it comes to Ozone–a pollutant which causes respiratory illness. This is not by accident. In El Paso, we are flooded by oil and gas infrastructure and economic pressure from the Permian Basin oilfield–the worst polluting oilfield in the world.
El Paso is the 10th sunniest city on the planet, yet El Paso Electric only uses 5% renewable energy to power the grid. This private company operates three polluting gas plants by piping in fracked gas from the Permian. Additionally, the El Paso Refinery propped in the center of the city, operated by Marathon Petroleum, refines crude oil from the Permian Basin oilfields. These major fossil fuel infrastructure sites pump NOx, particulate matter, VOCs and other pollutants into the atmosphere–greatly contributing to El Paso’s respiratory health problem.
First stop on our toxic tour is a gas plant operated by El Paso Electric – the Montana Vista Gas Plant in the far east. We heard testimony from frontline community member Ralph Carrazco who led a movement to fight the construction of this gas plant along with environmental attorney Veronica Carbajal. This is a good article by the New York Times chronicling some of this struggle.
El Paso Electric built this multi-million dollar gas plant in 2015. The community’s resistance however won some concessions, for example forcing the company to only build 4 polluting turbines instead of the 8 they originally proposed. This is a video of emissions from the Montana Vista gas plant that Sharon took in 2021.
NEWMAN GAS PLANT
Second stop was the Newman Generation Station (gas plant) in the northeast. In 2021, the Amanecer People’s Project, then called “Sunrise El Paso,” led a campaign to prevent El Paso Electric from expanding this plant. The expansion, Newman 6, was a +$160 million project to expand the site’s capacity to convert fracked gas from the Permian into electricity by adding a 6th, 228 MW turbine–greatly increasing emission levels from that station. Sharon and I were instrumental in this campaign–providing OGI documentation of the emissions, supporting the TCEQ contested case hearing process, connecting frontline community members to legal representation and more.
Though the coalitions fought hard, the El Paso Electric company ultimately did win its permit to build the gas plant turbine. Newman 6 is currently under construction and expected to be online soon. Because of the community resistance however, we won some concessions from the company:
- Legal commitment to never expand the Newman facility at Chaparral, ever
- A 4-year moratorium on any fossil fuel projects in their service territory
- Legal commitment to apply to shut off two polluting gas turbines at Newman and Rio Grande
- 40% reduction of NOx emissions from Newman 6
- 40% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from Newman 6 (El Paso Electric’s original permit allowed for Newman 6 to emit 1.3 billion tonnes of CO2. The agreement requires EPE to reduce CO2 pollution from Newman 6 by 500,000 tons—the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road, or planting 8 million trees.)
- $400k funds for community use geared towards health advocacy and environmental impact mitigation. (Some of these funds became the seed money for the bold climate action project “El Paso Climate Charter)
- Following EPA regulations preemptively Purchasing VOC pollutant “offsets”
During the toxic tour, Sharon Wilson recorded this video here. This footage is captured by an optical gas imaging camera. This OGI captures methane and volatile organic compounds which are invisible to the naked eye. Not surprisingly, we see emissions and particulate matter from this site.
EL PASO REFINERY
Next we stop at the Marathon Petroleum refinery sitting right in the center of El Paso. The site is also connected to the Permian oilfields, refining crude oil from the region. Along with the gas plants, the refinery is also a major source of emissions in El Paso. It is the top polluter of Particulate Matter 10–which causes respiratory illness. In 2020 the Marathon Refinery reported 4,008 pounds of illegal air pollution. Here is a video of the refinery that Sharon Wilson captured a few years ago. We see emissions off-gassing from the storage tanks at the refinery
Next, we visited Zavala Elementary school, which is dangerously located directly fenceline to the Bridge of the Americas, puente libre. We heard testimony from Cemelli de Aztlan and Hilda Villegas from Familias unidas de Chamizal about the stalling traffic from the bridge–especially diesel trucks–that pollute heavy toxins which harm children in the Chamizal directly.
AMANECER MEMBERSHIP LAUNCH
The final stop on the tour was Amanecer People’s Project Membership Launch at the historic movement-space of Cafe Mayapan. Amanecer–formerly “Sunrise El Paso”–has been holding down major environmental justice campaigns in El Paso since 2019. As a founder of this organization, I have witnessed how the organization has inspired thousands of souls to take bold, strategic climate action.
Early 2023, Amanecer People’s Project ran a campaign to get the ambitious “El Paso Climate Charter” (Proposition K) voted into law. The organization had successfully amassed nearly 40,000 signatures to place the bill on the May 2023 election. The Climate Charter would have transformed the El Paso City Government by requiring it to increase renewables, drive down pollution, create climate jobs and shift the utility towards public control–instead of private profit. The ballot measure was subject to vicious disinformation attacks by Big Oil political operatives–like interest groups that represent Shell, Exxon, Occidental Petroleum and more. Outspent by about 20-to-1, the El Paso climate movement was defeated.
Personally, this loss hurt like hell.
Here we had a pathway to victory for a community near the belly of the beast of the Permian Basin to implement a historically bold climate action plan. It would have sent a ringing message globally that victory is possible. Nonetheless, Amanecer People’s Project recovered, restructured and got back on the saddle–launching a dues-membership system for the organization. At Cafe Mayapan, around 150 climate advocates filled the space with hope and commitment to continue the fight for climate justice in West Texas. I spoke at the rally, drawing on my experience of the past three years conducting fieldwork in the Permian with Sharon.
In the end, this Membership Launch can serve as the ringing message globally that victory is possible.
WATCH: Video where I narrate this El Paso Toxic Tour