In East Austin, one plot of land near a decommissioned natural gas and oil-fired power plant now produces fruits and vegetables in a community garden. In South Houston, land that was contaminated by an old landfill will soon be occupied by a commercial solar farm.
Based on his recent executive order on climate, President Joe Biden wants to see more projects like these that combine efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with jobs cleaning up contaminated sites that are disproportionately located in communities of color.
In Texas, the president’s directive to prioritize such projects could present opportunities for neighborhoods that have been left with the toxic legacies of the early days of the oil, gas and chemical industries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas has 69 Superfund sites, which are extremely toxic sites the federal government has prioritized for cleanup. The state also has several recently mothballed natural gas plants and thousands of old and abandoned oil and gas wells.
The president’s order, in part, makes revitalizing “energy communities” an official policy of his administration and aims to reduce methane emissions, oil and brine leaks and other environmental harms from former mining and oil and gas drilling sites.
“Such work should include efforts to turn properties idled in these communities into new hubs for the growth of our economy,” Biden’s order said. It directs a slew of federal agencies to identify and coordinate federal resources to revitalize the economies of communities where coal, oil and gas and power plants provided jobs for decades, but now have either shuttered or could soon be jeopardized by a transition to low-carbon energy sources.
But Biden’s vision is at odds with Republican leadership in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s GOP members of Congress have mostly criticized it for prioritizing renewable energy sources over the oil industry, which remains a pillar of the state’s economy.
“Texas is not going to stand idly by and watch the Biden administration kill jobs in Midland, in Odessa or any other place across the entire region,” Abbott said last week during a visit to the Permian Basin, one of the most productive oil fields in the world. He signed his own executive order that directs state agencies to “use all lawful powers and tools to challenge any federal action” that threatens the energy sector in Texas.
Biden’s directive to find ways for energy workers to contribute to the nation’s climate goals is a recognition that some of his environmental policies will cost jobs in the fossil fuel industry, said Michael Drysdale, an environmental attorney at Dorsey & Whitney, a national law firm based in Minneapolis.