San Antonio River Authority Board Endorses Climate Plan, But Brings Tough Questions

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio River Authority Board Chair Darrell Brownlow of Wilson County questioned City officials on the reality of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan before endorsement from the governing agency.

The San Antonio River Authority endorsed the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, but not before two of its board members pointed out some of its weaknesses. 

The discussion came ahead of a vote on the resolution supporting the plan at the River Authority’s Wednesday board meeting. It highlighted some of the problems inherent in a proposal to drastically cut emissions while still remaining politically palatable in a sprawling, auto-centric Texas city on the fringes of the Eagle Ford Shale.

The River Authority is the first government entity to officially endorse the plan with jurisdiction stretching far outside of urban Bexar County, including into major oil- and gas-producing areas. Its territory covers Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties. CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System also have endorsed the latest version of the plan, which is set for a City Council vote on Oct. 17. 

The climate plan grew out of a 2017 City Council pledge to join hundreds of other cities to help meet the goals of the international Paris Accord, meant to limit global average temperature rise. The latest version of San Antonio’s plan maintains goals set in a January draft of reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, though many of the most controversial specifics have been removed from the newest version.

Tough questions about the plan came from River Authority board chair Darrell Brownlow, a consulting geologist and former Cemex executive who represents Wilson County on the board; and Deb Bolner Prost, a market research consultant and former Olmos Park councilwoman who represents Bexar County. Brownlow and Prost abstained from the vote on a resolution supporting the climate plan, which otherwise passed unanimously. 

In a discussion ahead of the vote, Brownlow focused on the technical challenges of meeting the targets in the plan, asking first about one proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 47 percent by 2030. 

“What does that entail?” Brownlow asked the City’s Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer Julia Murphy. “What are the key elements that envision this 47-percent reduction? Is that just a target and we’ll figure out how to do this and what drives it?”

Murphy responded that the strategies likely will include “cleaner and more efficient fuels,” which she described as electric, cleaner diesel, and compressed natural gas, or CNG. The previous version of the plan explicitly stated San Antonio must “transition to carbon-free transport.” The newest version says the City will “encourage the acceleration of and transition to cleaner and more efficient vehicle technologies.” However, diesel and CNG won’t be enough to bring carbon emissions down to net zero by 2050. 

“This is an incredibly energy-rich region,” Brownlow said. “Five of the largest energy-producing counties within the state of Texas are … adjacent to our river authority boundaries. [It’s] the largest cash-generating employment opportunity. … Obviously energy production and consumption is significant.” 

Murphy said City officials “do recognize that the oil and gas industry is a major economic generator of our community.” She added that the transportation strategies in the plan are about getting people to rely on public transit. 

“The majority of our emissions in that sector are from single-occupancy vehicles,” she said. “So a lot of the strategies are focused on helping people maybe not have to drive everywhere.” 

Brownlow then asked how carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles in San Antonio could even be measured. No one in the room appeared to know the answer. 

Some suggested that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s air monitors measure this, but those monitors don’t measure carbon dioxide. Others thought it had to do with annual tailpipe inspections common in other areas, but Bexar County doesn’t have any such inspection requirements.  

In truth, the vehicle emissions included the climate plan are modeled, not directly measured. They’re based on data on the numbers and types of vehicles on San Antonio roads that are fed into an emissions model. 

Prost asked about whether the new version of the plan had gotten any support from San Antonio’s large employers and why its supporters have recently insisted on calling it a “framework.” 

“Is there a reason why this is not called a framework and it’s called a plan?” Prost asked. “Because I keep hearing from business people – I’m a business person – that the problem is with the word ‘plan.’ Because when you have a plan, you’re going to follow the plan.” 

Steve Graham, the River Authority’s assistant general manager who served on the climate plan’s steering committee, said what those involved with the plan have “heard from the chambers [of commerce] and from [businesses] is they won’t oppose it.”

“I don’t know if they’ll say [they] endorse the plan, but they’re willing to allow things to move forward with this framework concept,” Graham said. 

So far, the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, whose largest members are mostly government entities, such as CPS Energy, is the only business group to formally endorse the plan.

SARA Assistant General Manager Stephen Graham.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio River Authority Assistant General Manager Stephen Graham

Graham called the plan a form of “adaptive management” that recognizes that improvements in green technology will make many of its goals more achievable than they seem now. 

“There are technologies that don’t even exist yet that will be required to make this plan successful,” he said. “I think ‘framework’ would have been a better term because it would say, ‘This is as it stands today, but as time moves forward, cost, implementation, and technology will change.’”

Brownlow also questioned about how San Antonio could cut emissions to nearly zero while still adding a million more residents by 2040, as many local leaders expect. He used the example of cement production – making one ton of cement requires emitting about a ton of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

“You can’t make cement without producing greenhouse gases,” Brownlow said. “We can’t build highways, we can’t build roads, we can’t build bridges, churches, schools, airports, any of this infrastructure that we currently have without cement or construction aggregates. Those are considerations that create an extraordinarily complex implementation strategy.” 

Because of difficulties in modeling and accounting for these kinds of emissions, the climate plan does not currently factor in emissions that go into the products that enter the San Antonio market, including construction materials. Brownlow went on to call details like this a “practical reality.” 

“I mean, I live in Floresville,” he said. “I go to the church parking lot and I don’t see a car in it, I see diesel pickups. But that’s the way it is.”

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