I-35 N at 1604
The City's proposed Climate Action and Adaptation Plan calls for roadways to transition away from fossil-fuel powered vehicles by the year 2050. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Some of San Antonio’s biggest businesses and trade organizations are pushing back hard against the City’s climate plan, with opposition prompting one City Council member to say he can’t support a version of the plan that includes any new regulations or mandates.

At a City Council committee meeting Thursday, Councilmember Manny Pelaez (D8) said that in part because of opposition from businesses in his district that employ thousands of people, he cannot vote for the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan as it currently stands.

“If this were up for a vote today, I’d vote no on it,” Pelaez told City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick at the Council committee meeting Thursday. “The difficulty for me is that, in my district, my three largest employers happen to be [car and truck dealerships], Valero, and NuStar. I know for a fact you don’t have buy-in from those three big employers.”

Remarks by Pelaez, San Antonio Manufacturers Association CEO Rey Chavez, and officials with the SA Auto Dealers association all paint a clearer picture of the outrage the City’s proposed plan to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions citywide by 2050 is causing among some local businesses.

Chavez, whose more than century-old trade organization represents many of San Antonio’s largest industrial employers, forwarded an email to Council members Thursday that called it “BS” that “many in city offices, city council and environmentalist [sic] believe climate change is real and that we’re going to die.”

Read Rey Chavez’s email.

Pelaez poked fun at parts of Chavez’s “very, very odd” email, but he also criticized the climate plan for having “very high-minded, aspirational goals” while failing to make a business case for climate action.

“This is omitting or not giving due consideration to the cost issue, and the free market issue, and the consumer choice issue,” Pelaez said. “I’m not sure that’s an intellectually honest conversation if you’re not having that part of the conversation too.”

Councilman Manny Peláez (D8) gives his opinion on the Tobacco 21 proposal at B Session.
Councilman Manny Peláez (D8) Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The plan states that in order for San Antonio to reduce its share of emissions in line with an international agreement known as the Paris Accord, the city as a whole must be taking in more greenhouse gases than it emits by 2050. That would mean, among many other things, no more coal or natural gas in CPS Energy’s portfolio and a transition away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles on San Antonio roads within 30 years.

The Rivard Report reached out Thursday for comment on the plan and Pelaez’s remarks from Valero and NuStar, both major energy companies headquartered in San Antonio. Lillian Riojas, Valero’s director of media relations and communications, did not immediately answer questions emailed late Thursday.

Mary Rose Brown, NuStar’s chief administrative officer, said in an email that NuStar executives are “concerned that there has been no significant analysis of the cost implications of the plan and their potential impact on the city, local businesses, our economy, and most importantly, on the citizens of San Antonio.”

“While we are continuing to analyze the study, we expressed our initial concerns to Councilman Pelaez and Mayor [Ron] Nirenberg and we appreciate their willingness to slow down the process to allow the time needed for the entire community to understand the plan and to have meaningful dialogue before the plan is finalized,” Brown continued.

The Rivard Report also reached out earlier this week to Andeavor, a locally headquartered energy logistics, marketing, and refining company that recently merged with Marathon Petroleum. An Andeavor spokesperson declined to comment on the plan.

A no vote from Pelaez would put the climate plan’s passage on shakier ground. Councilman and mayoral candidate Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) are also unlikely to vote for the plan.

Pelaez is an attorney who was Toyota’s first local hire when the car company started working towards its manufacturing site in south San Antonio. He also served as chair of the board in charge of Brooks City Base, a former military base turned mixed-use development on the South Side.

In his remarks on Thursday that critiqued the plan, Pelaez also criticized some business leaders, though not by name. He said that some he spoke with have not even read the 84-page document.

“I do challenge them,” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘Tell me which page offends you the most of this climate adaptation plan.’ And then they’ll break down and tell me, ‘Well, I’ve never read it.’ But they’re still very offended because they know it’s full of hippie stuff. That’s what they say. They show up to the table with their own biases.”

Brown said that NuStar leadership “have now reviewed the plan extensively” and also attended a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce meeting to “better understand its contents and its potential implications.”

“Our analysis is continuing, but we do hope to be involved in meaningful dialogue before the plan is finalized,” she said.

Pelaez said the plan is “troublesome” without the buy-in of many local businesses, many of which have improved life in San Antonio. He cited the example of NuStar and the company Chairman Bill Greehey’s support for the homeless shelter Haven For Hope.

“It makes it difficult to explain to their employees, ‘Thanks for making San Antonio great – here’s a plan that completely discounts all your efforts,” Pelaez said. “I’m sensitive to that. I have to be sensitive to that because they’re my constituents.”

Pelaez also shared with the Rivard Report a letter signed by SA Automobile Dealers Chair Lee Willis and President Pamela Crail that criticized the climate plan for its lack of information on economic impacts.

SA Automobile Dealers letter

“The climate plan has lofty goals, but the plan does not address the feasibility of achieving these goals,” the letter states. “One of the goals is transitioning to carbon-free vehicles. … However, there is no discussion in the [climate plan] of the current state of the market demand for such a transition.”Chavez’s email included, among other links, a YouTube link to a video by a group called Clear Energy Alliance titled “Is Putin Funding Eco-Activists?” The video laid out an argument for the Russian premier’s financial support for American environmentalists.

President of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association Rey Chavez
President of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association Rey Chavez Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“So if you’ve got any Vladimir Putin money, I’d like a piece of that,” Pelaez told Melnick, jokingly.

In a Thursday interview with the Rivard Report, Chavez clarified that he’s not saying that Putin is funding local environmental activists, though he did question where their funding comes from.

Chavez did assert that climate scientists are pursuing an agenda of global warming to get grant funding.

“There are so many, many people, scientists, and Nobel folks, that are saying this global warming is being thrown out of context,” Chavez said. “This is not true. It’s being manipulated, and you hear of U.S. scientists putting in for more grant money to study the climate because it’s job security.”

A recent report involving 12 federal agencies and more than 350 individual scientists concluded that human-caused climate change is already causing “more frequent and intense extreme weather” and shifts in average climate conditions across the U.S.

Chavez was originally tapped to be a member of the steering committee that helped guide the development of the climate plan over most of 2018. In his email to councilmembers and in the interview, Chavez said that he attended three meetings before deciding to pull out of the process, which he said had been completely co-opted by environmentalists.

“It was very apparent to me that the only people that were running the committees if you may, the higher voices, were the environmentalists, and that kind of concerned me and some of my colleagues from other organizations,” Chavez said in the interview. “They kept on getting voted down.”

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said that Chavez’s leaving the committee “doesn’t tell me that there was a good … effort as a stakeholder providing his input to make sure that his constituency was happy. They just pulled out.”

Saldaña called the climate plan a “framework,” not a “set of mandates” and compared it to the city’s comprehensive planning effort SA Tomorrow.

“I think this comes with a heightened sense of attention or even controversy,” Saldaña said. “Folks immediately are running to their corners, but I would support it today because the philosophy on this is not far from where community members to go. … We want to be adaptive and resilient.”

Saldaña also pointed to examples of the oil and gas industry supporting cities in their climate action plan. For example, CenterPoint Energy and Shell are providing financial and other support to Houston in that city’s development of a climate action plan.

Chavez said that with taxes, fees, ordinances and other costs on businesses mounting, San Antonio businesses “can’t take any more.”

“They’re being mandated how to run their businesses by individuals who have never run a business, who have never cut a check, who have never managed people, yet they tell you they know best how to tell you to run your business,” Chavez said. “[Businesses are] being hit by property taxes. They’re being hit by ordinances. … How much more can you hit them with? They’re already taking care of their employees with health care plans. They’re providing insurance and retirement programs. If you hit them with more stuff like this, what are they going to do? They’re going to leave.”

Pressed on whether a large employer would actually leave San Antonio if the city passes the climate plan, Chavez drew a distinction between major companies and smaller businesses.

“I talk to the big boys, the CPS Energys, the Toyotas, the H-E-Bs, the Valeros and all that,” he said. “They can absorb that, and they’ve got great programs. And they’re doing super jobs. But what about the small and the medium-sized businesses?”

Chavez also said he’s concerned about the climate plan’s impact on everyday citizens.

“What about those folks that are not going to be able to afford it?” he said. “They’re going to have to make a decision: Do I buy groceries or do I pay my electric bill? What if they don’t run their air conditioner during the summer and it’s hot? I don’t want people to die.”

Pelaez said that none of the thousands of constituents he has spoken to recently during his re-election campaign have mentioned climate as an issue for them. He said he would be able to support a plan that was comprised of incentives without mandates, which he called “all carrot, no stick.”

Saldaña said he doesn’t think that a plan that only relies on incentives with zero mandates will do an adequate job of responding to the causes and effects of climate change. He used the example of federal fuel standards that have led to more efficient vehicles.

“We’re saying that as a city, we’re seeing the curve of technology, and we just want to be prepared for it,” Saldaña said. “Talking out loud and creating a plan is not anything that should put the death nail in any private industry or developer, it simply calls them to the table to discuss ways that they can be part of a resilient San Antonio.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.