Texas’ 28th congressional district stretches from Laredo to San Antonio’s East Side. Along the way, it cuts through one of America’s most productive fossil fuel sites. Known as the Eagle Ford Shale reserve, fracking has driven a huge natural gas and oil boom there over the past decade.
Yet this district has become an unlikely proving ground for transformative climate policy. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who has voted repeatedly in the interests of the oil and gas industry, has represented the district for 15 years. But this year, Cuellar faces a stiff primary challenger in Jessica Cisneros, a young immigration attorney from Laredo who supports the Green New Deal. And backed by large swaths of the progressive movement, influential Democratic Party organizations, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in small, individual contributions, she could win, putting a bright green star in the middle of oil country.
The race has become the clearest sign of the sharp split between establishment Democrats and insurgent progressives, particularly when it comes to climate politics. Cisneros is backed by Justice Democrats, the political action committee best known for supporting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s run in 2018, who have chosen Cuellar as a top 2020 target.
“Cuellar is one of the most pernicious influences in the Democratic Party. People in the district call him Trump’s favorite Democrat, and people also call him Big Oil’s favorite Democrat, ” Waleed Shahid, Justice Democrats’ communications director, told Earther.
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Since she announced her campaign last summer, Cisneros has also won support from the Sunrise Movement—the youth-led climate organization who have spearheaded the Green New Deal campaign—and a slew of other environmental organizations, including the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and much of the Texas labor movement. Influential Green New Deal supporters in Congress have also endorsed her, including Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez. Cisneros has also refused corporate donations, but in 2019, she raised almost $1 million dollars from small donors, and in the last two campaign filing quarters, her campaign has outraised Cuellar, making her his first serious primary challenger.
In comparison, Cuellar’s current and previous campaigns have been fueled by massive donations from extractive industry. Last Friday, he became the first Democrat to ever win the support of Americans for Prosperity Action, a super PAC founded and funded by fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch known for funding climate denial and delay. The Democratic establishment has also lined up behind Cuellar. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed him, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee vendor blacklist, which intended to block consultants and outside firms from working for primary challengers, is protecting him as an incumbent.
These groups are all protecting the politics of the past. Possibly the most conservative Democrat in the House, Cuellar has voted against numerous environmental protections—even ones that other representatives from his state supported. On an environmental voting scorecard, the League of Conservation Voters’ (LCV) scorecard gave him a 42 percent “F” score. Colin Strother, Cuellar’s campaign manager, told Earther that Cuellar sees the Green New Deal as “completely unrealistic.”
Meanwhile, Cisneros has endorsed the Green New Deal, a set of transformative climate policies. The goals are in line with the best available science and what’s called for to reduce emissions enough to prevent more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of heating.
“As climate change continues to worsen and threaten our health, safety, and prosperity, we see the global effects from our community right here in South Texas,” Cisneros said in an emailed statement to Earther. “I know that my future and the next generation’s future is dependent on bold leaders who will step up to defend our planet.”
TX-28 falls along the U.S.-Mexico border and its eligible voter population is 71 percent Latinx, a demographic traditionally more supportive of aggressive climate action than the general public. With a 9 percent Democratic lean, the district is safely blue, meaning whoever wins the March 3 primary is expected to win the seat in November.
Despite that, running on the Green New Deal may sound surprising in the heart of Texas, the biggest producer of gas and oil in the U.S. But a recent Data for Progress poll shows that 51 percent of Texas residents support a Green New Deal.
“People think we’re pro oil and gas,” Matthew Johnson, the political director for the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, told Earther. “But [they don’t] fully appreciate what oil and gas has done to the environment in South Texas in terms of water quality and air quality.”
The local and global impacts of that industry have a growing number of Texans ready for a change. Fossil fuel companies like the ones in Texas are responsible for a lion’s share of the emissions driving the climate crisis, something polling by Yale shows a majority of the district’s residents want to address. Many residents are fed up with the local impacts of extractive industry, like pollution, too
Though much of the district currently depends on Eagle Ford for jobs, the oil and gas operations there have also wreaked havoc on communities. Residents have sued companies who extract in the shale play for polluting local air and water with toxins that can cause health problems from headaches to cancer.
But the industry in Eagle Ford is still expanding, and during the campaign, Cuellar has explicitly called for more of the same.
He has also accepted donations from at least 11 of the companies operating in his district, and has backed legislation that’s led to fossil fuel expansion. A study out this week shows that the more often legislators vote against the environment, the more their donations from extractive industries increase. Cuellar’s campaign asserts that he’s not influenced by donations, with Strother, the campaign manager, telling Earther it was “fucking offensive” to even ask because it’s illegal to accept bribes in exchange for votes.
In comparison, Cisneros has pledged to not take fossil fuel money. And she says she’s onboard with changes that would ultimately move the district away from the fossil fuel economy. In response to an endorsement questionnaire from 350 Action, she committed to supporting a fracking ban in the U.S., putting a moratorium on new public land fossil fuel leases, and reinstating the oil export ban Cuellar voted to lift.
Fossil fuels are the backbone of the Texas economy. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed directly by extractive industries in the state, and the industry’s impacts ripple out from there, with schools and other public goods, for instance, receiving tax revenue from oil and gas companies.
But any climate policy that meets the scale and urgency of the climate crisis will have to transform the economy. And Cisneros is determined to ensure that transformation doesn’t leave workers behind. She says she supports a program that would not only decarbonize the economy, but also create job training programs to help transition fossil fuel workers into cleaner industries.
“Through a Green New Deal, we will be able to create countless new jobs in our community that we desperately need and we will protect our planet and the future of South Texas,” she said. “With renewable energy set to surpass coal in the U.S. by 2021, Texas is uniquely equipped with enough sunlight and wind to compliment each other and make a 100 percent renewable power grid cheaper and more reliable. Texas should take steps to lead, not be left behind.”
Some of those jobs already exist. Texas ranks second in the number of renewable energy jobs in the U.S., trailing only California. The state also has most wind-generated energy of any state in the U.S., and over the next three years, solar power is expected to be the fastest-growing contributor to the state’s power grid. But most of the state’s energy still comes from oil and gas.
“It is a bigger lift to transition Texas to a fully, renewable energy state, because we are so reliant on that industry, and because we are historically and currently exporting oil and gas outside of our state to so many other states and countries,” said the Sierra Club’s Johnson. “This is the heart of this industry.”
Transitioning Texas won’t be easy, but the alternative is unthinkable. Right now, parts of the TX-28 are facing extreme drought, which is taking a toll on local agriculture. Last summer, the Rio Grande also saw massive floods that damaged a thousand homes and killed at least one person. And in 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated many parts of the state. Without urgent action, Texas will see more drought and extreme heat and more floods in years to come. The longer the state waits to prepare residents for an economy that doesn’t run on fossil fuels as well as the impacts of climate crisis already in the pipeline, the harder it will be on residents.
Cuellar’s campaign told Earther the Green New Deal is a “fairytale,” but for Texas and the rest of the world, decarbonizing every sector of the economy is our only shot at survival. Anything else is unrealistic. The policy needs buy-in from places like Texas, which produces 40 percent of the U.S. oil and gas, and Cisneros could give the legislation a huge boost if she beats Cuellar on Super Tuesday and joins the House in January. If the Green New Deal succeeds in Texas, it can succeed anywhere.