Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants Texas' largest city to be a climate leader without demonizing oil and gas companies.
In July, Houston released a draft climate action plan that envisions having more public infrastructure for electric vehicles and converting the nonemergency, light-duty municipal fleet to EVs.
The destruction after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 changed some perspectives on the urgency of more aggressive energy and transportation planning. Today Houston relies heavily on renewable energy in its municipal electricity spending. But a proposed widening of Interstate 45 has frustrated some who see the project as a new source of pollution, flooding, safety issues and displacement in the city.
Turner, who's seeking reelection this year, spoke with me yesterday, the day before we began our Electric Road Trip. He is 64 years old and a longtime Democratic voice in Texas.
Can Houston be a climate leader when so much of its huge economy and workforce are dedicated to advancing oil and gas?
Absolutely. We no longer just talk about oil and gas. We talk about being the energy capital of the world. And that's inclusive of oil — oil and gas — and renewables.
So you can't continue to be the energy capital of the world and just focus on one sector. You have to focus on the diversification within the energy sector. And, quite frankly, there's no better place for it to take place than right here in the city of Houston.
To the extent we can put forth a successful, let's say, climate action plan in the energy capital of the world, it will speak volumes to people around the world.
Does global warming inform what you propose to do in Houston?
These storms are coming with greater frequency and greater intensity. And you don't have to talk about a hurricane. You could have 6 inches of rain falling in 10 hours or less, and you're going to have some flooding.
We recognize that the plan that we put forth has to be something that's uniquely Houston that achieves the end objective — carbon neutral by 2050.
How important could electric vehicles be in reaching that goal?
Electric vehicles will play a vital part, you know, in that equation. To the extent we can move people to electric vehicles, [that] would be a big, big plus in achieving our climate action plan end goal. Cleaner air. A more healthy environment. Enhancing the quality of life.
But in the effort to boost EVs, aren't you also shrinking the prospects for oil?
I think there's diversification in every market. You have oil and gas companies who are investing in renewables. I think people recognize the evolution of energy use.
It's not making Big Oil out to be a bad guy?
I'm not interested in creating a win-lose. What I am interested in is working to create a win-win and utilizing the intellectual capital that exists within our city as it relates to the energy market and saying, how can we achieve the end objective? How can we create a cleaner environment? How can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Do you think we should have EVs at a certain level by a certain year, or is that still being worked out?
That is still being worked out. We know we have got to have a lot more charging stations.
We're taking a look at what they're doing out in LA. And I commend by good friend Mayor [Eric] Garcetti and the work that they have done.
We lost a large portion of our electric fleet — municipal electric fleet — from Hurricane Harvey.
Is there anything you want people to know about Houston that maybe they don't know about it?
We've always wanted to be out front. We like to lead.
We can still be a leader when it comes to climate action in this space and still be true to who we are. It's a win-win and not winners and losers.
We'll see if we can get it done. It's very ambitious and challenging — but exciting — all at the same time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.