The Conservative Texas Mayor Leading the Charge With Renewable Energy Talks About the Green New Deal

March 7, 2019
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by Catherine Trautwein Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Georgetown, Texas Mayor Dale Ross speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit 9.0 on October 13, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit)

Last month, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey introduced their “Green New Deal” resolution — an ambitious plan to make the U.S. net zero on greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously tackling economic inequality. Republicans immediately pounced. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend, President Trump portrayed the Green New Deal as “a high school term paper written by a poor student,” warning that it would destroy the American economy. Included in CPAC’s slate of events was a breakout panel called “AOC’s Green New Deal: Debunking the Climate Alarmism Behind Bringing Full Socialism to the United States.”

Moves to reshape U.S. energy policy, from the introduction of carbon cap and trade to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, have sharply divided the parties, with Democrats typically taking the lead on green initiatives.

That makes Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, all the more remarkable. Ross has called himself both a “conservative Republican” and a libertarian. And yet, he’s embraced green initiatives in Georgetown — a Central Texas city of around 70,000 — which city officials now say is running on 100 percent renewable energy. The city decided to sign wind and solar contracts several years ago in part to guarantee stable energy prices and circumvent regulatory risk, according to Georgetown City Manager David Morgan.

The city has four energy contracts: two wind, one solar and one natural gas. It now provides for more renewable energy in the Texas grid than its residents consume, Morgan told FRONTLINE.

Although the push has helped create a windfall of free PR, according to its mayor, there have also been challenges. The Austin American-Statesman reported last month that the average Georgetown energy bill had risen by almost $13. But city leaders told FRONTLINE the increase was a standard power cost adjustment, not a problem specific to renewable energy. “If we had … gone with a gas contract or a coal contract, we would still be in a similar or same position,” Morgan said.

With a new plan to tackle renewable energy making headlines, we talked to Mayor Ross about Georgetown’s transition to wind and solar energy, why it happened, and whether he thinks a Green New Deal can be struck.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did this first come up that the city made its contract for clean energy?

We wanted two things: Long-term cost certainty on the pricing that we bought it for and also to mitigate that regulatory and governmental risk. Regulatory can be state or federal, and then the federal government — also on the environmental side — can create cost increases for fossil fuel producers with increased regulation. Our thought at the point in time was, “What’s there to regulate with wind and solar?” None of the bad stuff’s being thrown back up in the air. And also, first and foremost, this decision was a business decision that has proven that it has environmental benefits as well.

When I turn on the lights in Georgetown, do you know that it’s coming from renewable energy?

Here’s an analogy: Say you have a bathtub and everybody pours different kinds of water in there. And then you go get you a cup — let’s assume a sanitary bathtub — and you drink out of it. You don’t know whose water you’re drinking.

If it was up to you to plot the Green New Deal’s first step, what would you do?

I’m basically a libertarian and I’m a free marketer. I believe in limited government. I believe that when you incentivize somebody you get more out of the deal than if you penalize somebody. And CO2 emissions, let’s be honest — I believe that’s a serious problem right now and the window to make improvements on that is rather limited.

I think that I can speak to experience on Georgetown; when we first did the … contracts on renewable energy, it was predictably a business deal, but what we’ve realized since then [is] there’s tremendous economic benefits and there’s also environmental benefits that speak for themselves. There are a lot of companies in this country that have robust green policies and they want to be a part of cities and communities that are supportive of those robust policies.

I think when you’re talking about the Green New Deal, I tell you what, I think you have to be very careful. I don’t think governments across the U.S. should be dictating everything, I think that businesses and people ought to draw their own conclusions and do the things that one, are good for their communities; two, good for their environment; and three, good for their pocketbook, too. And renewable energy and other environmental things, I think, the proof will be in the pudding.

I think you get a lot more when you induce people with sugar than vinegar. And I think we have to be really careful about the feds and the state and cities mandating a bunch of stuff. I think there needs to be incentives, so people get on board with it.

One of the main tenants of the Green New Deal is getting the U.S. net zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Do you think that’s realistic? What would your Green New Deal look like if you were proposing it?

If you get the buy-in of the American public from coast to coast, that’s probably doable. I don’t think you can do it by forcing things. I think people are a lot more willing to make changes if they see how it benefits them and their community. Again, I’m a libertarian at heart, so I really like people to be able to do things on their own volition instead of the government saying, “You must do this.” And if you’ve got the right incentives out there, I think that can happen.

The Green New Deal pays special attention to vulnerable communities that climate change may have had a big impact on in the past. When Georgetown was considering this shift to renewable energy, were you looking at issues of energy equality? How would you suggest the U.S. tackle problems around energy inequality?

The answer of the first part of your question is no. It was purely a business decision on the front end. I think our strategy is going to disproportionately help those in the lower economic strata … If we can continue to create cost stability with electricity and other utilities, I think it’s going to help those at the lower level of the economic strata, because those are fixed costs and they have to pay those to be able to live. If we can make those as affordable as possible, I think that’s a win for everybody.

There’s a lot of back and forth between the two political parties on climate change and energy policy. How would you advise people in Congress to get on board with something like the Green New Deal?

Let’s talk about energy policy from a foreign policy standpoint. If we created all the energy in the U.S. that we needed, and we didn’t have any dependency on foreign countries, would it be fair to say that our foreign policy would be different? Would it be fair to say that we would have more leverage in our relationships with foreign countries? I think that’s absolutely true. I think when you have a dependency on something such as oil, gas, I think your decision making turns into the political instead of what’s best for our country.

What I would say to the people in Congress is we need to do something now to make the environment better. Let’s put the silly partisan politics to the side and let’s go on and make our decisions based on facts, okay? And I think if you do that, you come to the best conclusions for the people that you were elected to serve. And that’s what we try to do in Georgetown. I’m very cognizant, and so are my seven members of council that I serve with, that we are public servants and we are here to do the best job we can in the interest of our citizens. And I think that you will see changes are coming.

I’m so enthusiastic about the young people in this country. They are going to be the future leaders and they understand, like I do, that climate change is real. If you don’t believe that, I don’t believe you’re being honest with yourself. I believe that experts like scientists can make that evaluation for me instead of some politician that wants to keep getting reelected.

I will say this, though: I think that the Green New Deal is overambitious with respect to revolutionary progress. I think that you need to do evolutionary progress, and if you do continuous improvement every day, we get there. And I’m thinking with revolutionary we might not get there.

People seem really struck by the idea of a Republican mayor leading the charge on moving toward renewable energy. Why do you think that is?

It’s a tribute to our city staff that gives us the facts. Although we’re being criticized right now because we have a bump in the road, I still believe we’ll have tremendous success in the long-term.

This is what I think happens – and again, I was talking about in my previous answer to your question about what I would tell representatives — they are in hyper partisan politic mode 365. And it’s such a toxic political environment. It’s kind of hard for people to make decisions because you have to kowtow the company line. Unfortunately, in my party, the impression I’ve got is anything that has to do with climate change or environmental issues, is, “that’s just partisan politics.” They use these buzzwords and these labels like “liberal” and “progressive” and other words, and I’m sort of disappointed in my Republican colleagues because we’re the original party of conservation going back to Roosevelt. And we’ve sort of abdicated on this issue.

I think everybody in this country can agree cleaner water is better than dirtier water, cleaner air is better than dirtier air, and climate change? If you don’t believe it’s real now, you will in the near future because it’s just common sense. The more stuff you put in the air, the worse it is, right? Doesn’t everybody agree that more CO2 emissions are being put into the air at a higher level than in the history of mankind?

But this is what I think people ought to understand, and this is what they really ought to consider … Doesn’t our generation right now, don’t we have an overall moral and ethical duty and obligation to leave the planet for kids and grandkids better than we found it, and don’t we have the knowledge and technology and ability to affect positive change when it comes to environmental issues today? And if the answer to that is “yes,” what are we waiting for? Because everybody benefits from a better environment.

I think the difference is, it’s just a discussion on how to get to that point. And the Green New Deal I think is overly ambitious, and I think there’s a lot of defects with it. I think everybody agrees on the goals; the difference is how to get there. And I think if everybody would just put the silly politics aside, and have a thoughtful discussion, I think we can get there sooner rather than later, and I think we can do something that most people thought would never be possible.

Do you see the U.S. investing more and more in clean energy or are you worried that we’re not quite there yet?

I think we are making strides, and the difference of opinion is on how fast we get to the end goal. I’m 59 years old — birthday’s in April in case you’re going shopping anytime soon, just saying – and I’m running out of years. I think there is a sense of urgency for those of us in elected office. We know it’s possible to affect revolutionary change but not this year, it has to be more measured over a period of years.

I’m optimistic. I always see that glass more than half full. I think all things are possible when people of good will come together and that means people of different parties and different political philosophies. That’s what makes Georgetown and the U.S. the greatest city and the greatest country on planet Earth.

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