Mayor Ron Nirenberg listens to outgoing City Manager Sheryl Sculley's speech.
City Council will dip into its emergency fund to help nonprofits continue providing services amid an influx of migrants. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After an initial delay of a vote on San Antonio’s controversial climate plan beyond the May election, Mayor Ron Nirenberg is considering whether to push the vote back again.

In a prepared statement, Nirenberg told the Rivard Report that his decision on the timeline for the plan could come next week. The vote is currently scheduled for May 16.

“Action and adaptation to a changing climate is too important not to get it right,” Nirenberg said. “We’re getting inundated with public and stakeholder input. We’ll take an assessment next week of how that will impact the timeline moving forward.”

Nirenberg did not respond to a phone message and text seeking further comment.

The plan has drawn intense scrutiny from the public, local businesses, and business organizations, many of whom have focused exclusively on its calls to transition away from fossil fuels by 2050.

The plan also has strategies on how to help San Antonio adapt to a changing climate, which scientists predict will lead to an increase in heat waves, heavy storms, and droughts over the coming decades.

San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Chair John Agather said in an email that the delay is welcome for many people in the business community working on the climate issue.

“This is something that will affect every single citizen of our city,” Agather said.

Some of the most vocal business groups critiquing the plan have been the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Manufacturers Association. Leaders of both groups have focused on the plan’s lack of detailed costs, the effect of potential new regulations on local residents and businesses, and its lack of emphasis on the environmental commitments businesses have already made.

San Antonio Chamber President and CEO Richard Perez did not immediately respond to a phone message and email late Friday seeking comment. Manufacturers Association President and CEO Rey Chavez, who for a short time served on one of the volunteer committees working on the plan, declined to comment.

San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez speaks during the League of Women Voters of the San Antonio Area forum on the Proposed Charter Amendments: Pros and Cons held Monday Oct. 15, 2018 at the Central Library.
San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

An email signed by Perez that the Rivard Report obtained Friday states that the Chamber is hoping to raise $300,000 to fund a consultant to do an economic analysis of the plan.

“In order for the San Antonio business community to meaningfully engage on this document, we must first understand the economic impact and the associated costs for businesses, our municipally owned utility, and homeowners alike,” Perez said in the email “The last thing we want to do is negatively affect our community’s current positive economic trajectory by locking us in to a plan that is unrealistic and/or unattainable.”

Some business leaders have said San Antonio needs to take action on climate without specifically advocating for the measures in the plan. Hispanic Chamber CEO Diane Sánchez has called climate change “probably the most significant threat today, not only for San Antonio but for the world.”

Environmental advocates who have been involved in developing the plan from the beginning said another potential delay would be a serious disappointment. Many were ecstatic when the newly elected Nirenberg and City Council members made their first official action in June 2017 to pass a resolution saying San Antonio would do its part to support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, shortly after President Donald Trump declared the U.S. would pull out.

“For many of us, Ron came in like a celebrity mayor, when it was easy to stand with this movement of cities pledging to do what was right,” said Greg Harman, a San Antonio-based clean energy organizer with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter who also served on one of the volunteer committees. “It’s hard to not see steps like these as a calculated retreat as the sheen of that initial celebration has worn down.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), Nirenberg’s opponent in an increasingly heated mayoral race, also cast the potential delay as a sign of retreat. Brockhouse voted for the Paris Accord resolution in 2017 but has attacked the climate plan over its lack of cost details ever since its release.

“That’s a clear indication that [Nirenberg has] heard from the business community, from residents from people who are concerned about the same things I’ve been saying from the beginning,” Brockhouse said Friday.

Asked whether he had met with major San Antonio energy companies like Valero or NuStar regarding the climate plan, Brockhouse said no. He conceded that his support for the San Antonio firefighters union’s proposed charter amendments affect his dealings with local business interests.

“Obviously, they were on the other side, so they’ve got a concern with my tactics and the approach to the charter amendments, which they heavily funded on the other side,” he said. “They almost always stay with the incumbent mayor; that’s a pretty much common thing.”

Brockhouse also called himself the “biggest pro-business council member there is” and suggested that local business leaders are “grossly disappointed” in Nirenberg.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6)
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) has said he cannot support the plan as written in part because of the stance of large employers in his district. On Friday, Pelaez said he supports “delaying this as long as it takes to make sure that we get consensus from the necessary stakeholders.”

“I don’t think that resolutions are suicide pacts that somehow make us beholden to certain schedules,” he said. “This is also the product of very short term limits, so a project with these big and far-reaching ambitions is certainly a difficult thing to deliver within two years if you want to be sure to get it 100 percent right.”

The plan has caught the attention of statewide energy advocacy groups. On Friday, the Texas Oil and Gas Association sent Nirenberg an open letter saying the plan “includes mitigation strategies that will threaten reliable, affordable energy, increase transportation costs, and put San Antonio’s residents and economy at risk.”

The letter’s signatories include Texas Oil and Gas Association President Todd Staples and Bryan Shaw, former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). That’s the state regulatory agency tasked with protecting Texans from pollution, such as the chemical fires and benzene releases near Houston this week.

Harman said that while it’s true that the future doesn’t look good for oil and gas if political leaders decide to take action on climate, plenty of other sectors of the economy would benefit from solving the climate crisis.

“They’re not going to talk about tourism, recreation, labor, folks who work outside, renewable energy, all of these things that either incredibly benefit [from climate action] or suffer because of inaction,” Harman said.

Peter Bella, leader of San Antonio’s chapter of March For Science who served on the steering committee for the climate plan, said he’s “not comfortable with the idea of another delay” but hoped that any further wait on a vote would help the plan pass.

“More delays indicate that people aren’t ready,” Bella said. “More delays indicate that hesitation is winning over decision. If we can use the greater time to explain to people and convince people that the plan is in our best interest, it will be time well spent.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.