Determined to press the Texas Democratic Party to adopt a more aggressive stance on climate change and fracking, an Austin environmental activist is gearing up for a guerrilla maneuver on the floor of the party’s state convention next week in San Antonio.
Jere Locke, who runs the nonprofit Texas Drought Project and has long been involved in environmental matters in Central Texas, has recruited volunteers to gather thousands of signatures during the convention, to be held June 17-18, in a bid to force stronger language onto the party’s platform.
The platform serves as a guiding document for the party and its candidates. For the Democrats, who hold no statewide elected offices, the platform is also meant to serve as a sort of blueprint back to victory, one that balances convictions with pragmatism for a party whose members range from the liberal bastions of the big cities to the more conservative oil and gas fields south of San Antonio and in West Texas.
Currently, the state Democratic Party platform says the state “is blessed with natural gas and oil resources and new hydraulic fracturing technologies for extraction have opened up vast resources.”
Locke said the language is too rosy on fracking, in which millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are injected into rock thousands of feet underground to extract natural gas. Environmentalists say fracking and related industrial activities have led to groundwater contamination, air pollution and earthquakes.
The platform calls for a “verifiable and thorough review of the deleterious effects of hydraulic fracturing” — but Locke says that needs updating because deleterious effects have been documented.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, has documented no contamination of groundwater. And natural gas companies argue the fuel burns cleaner than coal.
But Locke wants the party to adopt language calling for a ban on new fracking operations.
Dissatisfied with early discussions on the state party platform advisory committee on which he sits — Locke said the reaction has been lukewarm about more aggressive language — he says he is preparing for the petition drive. He will need to get signatures from at least 4,500 delegates, or about half the total delegate count, to get his language in the party platform.
“We’re going to take it to the floor,” said Locke, adding that he recently bought 140 clipboards and has been busily recruiting volunteers to work on the delegates at the convention. “We’re interested in winning, but also in educating people.”
Locke said he suspected that utility companies that sponsor the convention had played a role in what he deemed watered-down language: CenterPoint Energy, Atmos Energy, Luminant, Oncor and TXU Energy are among the event’s business sponsors.
But Manny Garcia, a Texas Democratic Party deputy executive director, said the sponsors played no role in constructing the party platform.
“The platform is done out in the open,” Garcia said. “He himself is on the committee: All he has to do is work with his colleagues on the committee and work with the committee chair to get it done.”
Another Austin environmental activist, Karen Hadden, who has previously worked on party platform language, said some of the energy and environmental language, last adopted in 2014, “needs some strengthening.”
“Some people will try to do that, and some people will fight it,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary.”
The platform-writing process is consensus driven, said AJ Durrani, a former Shell executive from the Houston area who also serves on the advisory committee.
“Every member of that committee has a feeling about how that platform should be written,” he said. “Whenever you have a committee of people, the result is a collective statement that one person might not want, but that most everyone might agree to.”