Could the “Oil and Gas Capital of the World” become the “Renewable Energy Capital of the World?” It depends on if the city is allowed to govern itself.

By Julia Lewis

Growing up in Houston, Texas – a city commonly referred to as the “Oil and Gas Capital of the World” – I always thought there was no future for my city other than fossil fuels. Like many Houstonians, my dad worked in oil and gas for almost two decades, and leaving my house I was often reminded to take my inhaler due to the fumes rising above the skyline. In 2017, I watched as my city was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and I spent the first two weeks of 8th grade mucking out the ruined houses of my friends and neighbors instead of going to school. 

Recently, something else has happened in my home state. Renewable energy generation has boomed across Texas, to the point that it is the top wind energy-producing state in the country and is second only to California in solar production. The City of Houston also passed its Climate Action Plan in 2020, and for the first time, I wondered if maybe a different, cleaner future was possible for my home. This year’s legislative session at the Texas Capital proved otherwise.

Clean energy investments – which mean more jobs and less pollution – are becoming more common by the day. Because of this, the fossil fuel industry and its Republican allies at the Capital have done their best to thwart this growth. Anti-climate politicians, especially state legislators, have been attacking clean energy development through the passage of preemption laws. 

Preemption is ultimately a fight about which level of government gets to make certain decisions. Preemption laws allow a higher level of government, like a state legislature, to revoke or limit the governing power of a lower level of government, like a City Council. While these laws could be used to incentivize the development of clean energy, we are seeing a pattern of Republican-controlled state legislatures weaponizing preemption to restrict local climate leadership and even civic engagement. Preemption laws such as these do not solve existing problems, but instead, create new problems by stopping or restricting local governments from passing policies that would serve their communities. 

A great example of this strategy can be seen in Texas House Bill 17, a piece of legislation passed by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott on May 18, 2021. This law restricts the ability of counties, cities, and towns to regulate utility services and infrastructure based on the energy source. This means that local governments working on building electrification, for example, cannot transition away from natural gas appliances and heating. 

Preemption laws haven’t just been focused on energy, though. This year, the Texas legislature has proved that any policy and debate-of-the-day can be on the table. At a time when the state’s electric grid is unstable, public schools are critically underfunded, roads are deteriorating, water supply is unreliable, and gun violence is making national headlines, Texas lawmakers focused on ripping apart voting rights. Senate Bill 1933, signed by Abbott on June 18, 2023, allows the secretary of state (an Abbott appointee) to take over elections in Harris County if they prove to have “good cause to believe that a recurring pattern of problems with election administration or voter registration exists in the county.” The bill originally applied to all Texas counties but was amended to only apply to those with a population of over four million–a qualification that applies only to Harris County. This is a clear attempt to target the largest county in Texas (third largest county in the US) and the county that contains the most diverse city in the country. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo criticized the bill, describing it as  “a shameless power grab and dangerous precedent.” 

It’s easy to see how preemption legislation can be weaponized to limit voting rights and our ability to fight climate change. In fact, climate and voting rights go hand in hand. SB1933 will likely decrease voter turnout and increase voter apathy. This gives anti-climate politicians the advantage and jeopardizes climate action should climate champions lose at the ballot box. Because of this, climate activists are the first to make a stand on protecting voting rights. In fact, when President Trump was attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election, it was climate activists who led the creation of the Houston Election Defenders Coalition to raise awareness about what was happening and lobby our elected officials to protect our voting rights. 

Texas is far from the only state to target localities through preemption laws. Florida’s state government has practically made preemption its favorite strategy. In an effort to slow the progress of clean energy, the Florida Legislature passed HB839 in 2021, a bill preventing local governments from banning gas stations (which is not and has never been an issue in Florida). The law also prevents local governments from requiring electric vehicle charging stations by fuel retailers, complicating the electrification of the transportation sector. In addition to this bill, the legislature passed HB919, which, similar to HB17 in Texas, blocks municipalities from banning natural gas in new buildings. This inhibits the ability of localities to participate in the energy transition and even opens up the possibility of lawsuits if they try to move away from using fracked gas. 

Preemption bills such as these have become increasingly common in Republican state legislatures. They are part of an effort to increase state oversight and counteract progressive laws passed in large cities. In their most extreme form, preemption bills remove the ability for cities to govern themselves. When HB2127 goes into effect on September 1st, despite being advertised as “relief”, municipalities in Texas will be prohibited from passing city ordinances or regulations that conflict with existing state policy. This means that cities can’t be a voice for marginalized communities, provide workplace protections for labor, or even revitalize underutilized city lots. It is easy to see how bills like these threaten our democracy and have the power to seriously impact the energy transition. 

Harris County approved its Climate Action Plan in January of this year with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030. Now, because of the uncertainty caused by HB2127, “any regulations that Harris County does pass relating to climate change or clean energy will be a sure target for lawsuits, which will limit the amount of progress we can make on these issues locally,” according to Brandon Marshall, Communications Director for the Office of Lina Hidalgo. 

It is possible for these bills to be taken to court and overturned, but we cannot rely on this in every situation. We need leaders who will fight for democracy as well as support our efforts to decarbonize and invest in clean energy. 

Texas has the opportunity to be a global leader on clean energy. With the highest concentration of chemical engineers in the entire US residing in Texas, the state can produce a large number of energy workers – creating a long-term economic boom for the state. Add in the state’s loose regulations and the city of Houston’s potential to receive up to $250 billion annual investment in emerging energy sectors by 2040, the future could be bright in Texas. 

Houston, and Texas by extension, should play no other role than a leading one when it comes to the energy transition. Renewable energy is just good business (even my O&G dad would agree), and after all, everything is bigger in Texas– renewable energy can be too.