(Photo: Cory Hill)

The Reddest State Goes Green (Just Don't Mention Climate Change)

As drought and heat waves wallop Texas, ranchers, farmers, and cities are quietly embracing renewable energy and adapting to an undeniable truth.
Nov 30, 2015· 13 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

HEREFORD, Texas—“See? We’ve been expecting you,” says John Josserand, pointing at an op-ed from a local newspaper left conspicuously on a table in a wood-paneled hallway of the AzTx Cattle Company’s headquarters.

Global Warming Agenda Is About Control—a catchy headline, so I read on. “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary,” the article reads. “That’s the political goal of the global warmers.”

The story’s placement was either a coincidence or a warning shot. I have come to Texas to talk about climate change in a state reeling from its effects—drought, soaring temperatures, torrential floods.

FULL COVERAGE: Climate Change(d): The Future Is Now

My article skimming has left me trailing behind Josserand, and I lose him around a corner. The cowboys depicted in Western-themed paintings lining the walls are busy leading cattle to greener pastures—no help in directing me toward my destination: the office of John’s father, Bob Josserand, founder and former president of one of the nation’s largest cattle feeding operations.

Walking down the hall, I guess left and step into the half office, half den of the elder Josserand. I’m standing on a bearskin rug laid out next to a mounted mountain lion. The walls are covered with antlers, trophy fish, photos of Wyoming, plaques from the National Cattlemen’s Association, and a strange collage mounted on a chunk of a tree. I lean in for a closer look. Glued to the wood is a shell casing, a bullet, a four-by-six photo of three men around a dead bear, and an odd-looking bone.

“You know what that is?” Bob asks, noticing my preoccupied look. Unfortunately, I have an inkling. Fortunately, he answers before I have to. “His penis,” he says, pointing at the rug under my feet.

Bob Josserand. (Photo: Cory Hill)

The 84-year-old’s deep, rough voice sounds like it has been worn down over years of exposure to the extremes of the Texas Panhandle, a hot, dry region—unless it’s frigidly cold—where it’s not “windy” to locals until it’s blowing at 40 miles an hour. Not that the weather has him all that concerned. “I don’t think personally all of the fuss made about global warming has much to do with the changes we see,” Bob says. “Over thousands of years we’ve seen climate changes, and we’re seeing one now, but it’s been a gradual thing for years and probably will continue on for years.”

Actions, though, do speak louder than words. AzTx Cattle and other ranching and farming operations across West Texas are changing a century-old way of life to adapt to the new reality of climate change, even if, in their unwillingness to talk about global warming, they see their actions as a pragmatic response to a new business reality. So a state that once spawned oil billionaires like T. Boone Pickens now mints wind barons like, yes, T. Boone Pickens, and rock-ribbed conservative cities are ditching dirty coal for wind and solar energy. Texas may be home to some of the nation’s most vociferous climate skeptics—hello, Ted Cruz—but Texans are already fighting climate change, even if they won’t admit it. Survival, it turns out, trumps denial.

“If people are making smart choices for different reasons, that’s OK,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, and an evangelical Christian. “What matters is not why we do it; what matters is what we’re doing.”

Drilling for Water, not Oil

Texas is the United States’ No. 1 emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases, a state that owes its wealth, culture, and no small amount of swagger to oil. Texas crude built the gleaming skylines of Houston and Dallas, and the state is the nation’s biggest oil producer while supplying nearly a third of the country’s natural gas. Yet Texas also is a wind energy powerhouse, generating 36 million megawatt hours of carbon-free electricity in 2014, double that of any other state.

Scientists expect global warming to hit Texas sooner and harder than just about anywhere else in the country. Its droughts—like the 2011 record breaker that spawned water shortages across the state—will get longer. Floods—like the devastating deluge in May that pulled houses in Houston off foundations and killed 23 people—will become more frequent and severe, while scorching hot days will multiply. Some 70 percent of Texans believe global warming is happening, but only 44 percent think humans play a role in climate change, according to a 2013 survey conducted by Yale University.

Whether or not they think people are responsible for climate change, ranchers like Bob and John Josserand are responding.

When Bob took full control of AzTx Cattle in 1983, the company was fattening up hundreds of thousands of cattle spread out across several feedlots in Texas and one in Arizona. Beef cattle breeds such as Angus and Hereford live most of their lives on the range, grazing on grass, and then are sent to feedlots for a final four to six months. There, the cattle are placed in pens and “finished” with a high-protein, corn-based diet that promotes fat growth, tenderness, and better-tasting meat just before they go to slaughter. The cows can gain as much as 400 pounds in a feedlot.

It takes a lot of water to grow enough corn, soybean, and forage like alfalfa to fatten cattle. Estimates range from 440 gallons per pound to 1,847 gallons, making beef more water-intensive than sheep, pork, or chicken.

The source of much of that water is the Ogallala Aquifer—a 174,000-square-mile underground freshwater reservoir that stretches across eight states from South Dakota to Texas. The Ogallala supplies water for about one-fifth of all cattle, corn, cotton, and wheat grown in the U.S.

The Ogallala is the only available groundwater for farms and homes in northwest Texas. Hayhoe calls it “fossil water” because it took millions of years’ worth of High Plains rain to fill the vast underground reservoir.

It’s taken, however, just 60 years to draw down 30 percent of the aquifer. With the advent of pivot sprinkler irrigation systems in the 1950s, farmers began pumping groundwater. The Ogallala gets farmers through dry years, but as droughts have grown longer and more frequent, pumping has accelerated. Studies show that the aquifer has been losing as much as 325 billion gallons of water annually over the past four decades. At that rate, scientists estimate another 40 percent could be gone within 50 years. Some wells are already running dry. Climate change is accelerating the depletion of the Ogallala as a hotter climate speeds up evaporation rates, meaning less rainfall percolates into the aquifer.

(Map: Getty Images; data: Circle of Blue)

The drought that took hold in 2011—the driest year on record in Texas—forced ranchers to sell off herds as they couldn’t afford to pay skyrocketing prices for hay and other feed. Farmers, unable to irrigate cornfields, lost 41 percent of the year’s harvest. Agricultural losses hit $7.6 billion in 2011, making it the most costly drought in Texas history.

In 2012, Spicewood Beach, a town of 1,200 in Central Texas, ran out of water. Residents relied on trucked-in water until the completion of a $1.2 million surface water treatment plant in 2014.

While Texas cities have imposed water restrictions, only a handful of the 100 or so groundwater management districts in the state require farmers’ wells to be metered. The North Plains Groundwater Conservation District—which covers eight counties in the northern Panhandle—caps the amount of water farmers can draw from the aquifer at 18 inches per acre a year and penalizes them for exceeding that limit. Farmers in the 16-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District in West Texas must report their water use and comply with an 18-inch-per-acre limit.

“The problem is, the semiarid landscape in this region doesn’t allow rainwater to replenish the aquifer as quickly as we’re pulling water out,” Hayhoe says. “Even if we greatly reduce our water usage, it’s not going to take 10, 15, or even 50 years to replenish—it’s going take centuries.”

Coping With Change—Reluctantly

AzTx Cattle once operated feedlots scattered across the parched landscapes of Arizona and Texas. Bob Josserand cites the continued consolidation of the cattle feeding industry as the reason the company has closed all of its feedlots except for one in Hereford. Today, John Josserand focuses mainly on the company’s open-range cattle ranches in East Texas and New Mexico.

But even at the Hereford feedlot, things have changed.

On a walk around the 50,000-cattle lot, John reluctantly leads the way to the feedlot’s latest herd of Holstein cows—a smaller breed that requires less food and therefore less water. For a man who associates high-quality cattle with the all-black coat, perky ears, and stocky build of Angus, the Holstein, with its splotchy black-and-white hide and floppy ears, is not his favorite cow. It doesn’t produce the prized steaks associated with Black Angus or other iconic Texas cattle. If Holsteins are not used as dairy cows, they’re typically sold as low-quality ground beef—they’re kind of the catfish of the cow world.

John Josserand and his family's herd of Holstein cows. (Photo: Cory Hill)

They’re making up a larger and larger percentage of what we’re seeing here,” John says.

For Bob, the changes in the business—from downsizing to breed changing—are a logical response to current conditions. “We’ve seen years and years of wasting water, and it’s catching up with us,” he says. “The decisions that were made 40 years ago are coming back home.”

Bruce McCarl, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University, views the Josserands’ decision to move away from feedlots as the type of adaptation needed to cope with climate change.

“We see farmers and ranchers adapting to climate change in our studies, even if they don’t call it climate change,” he says. Some of the more obvious changes include switching to drip irrigation systems and substituting corn and other water-intensive crops for drought-tolerating grains such as sorghum.

In one study, McCarl found that cattle breeders in South Texas are now more likely to select Indian Brahman cattle—a drought- and heat-tolerant breed—over Angus. According to Oklahoma State University’s Department of Animal Science, Brahman have dealt with centuries of inadequate food supplies, pests, parasites, diseases, and extreme heat. They’ve developed larger sweat glands and looser skin, and they show few adverse effects in temperatures up to and over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, they’re the perfect climate-change cow.

McCarl says the study also showed that Angus cattle are moving farther north—and sometimes out of the state. In 2014, Texas’ cow population reached a 48-year low, and the state has lost 15 percent of its cattle since 2011. The dwindling cattle supply in the region led ag giant Cargill to shutter its 2,000-employee beef-processing plant in 2013.

“You’re talking about a very practical group of people—farmers and ranchers,” Hayhoe says. “Anything that makes sense, when it comes to conserving water or protecting their livelihood, they’ll do. But they’re not going to do it just to be green and fluffy.”

Green Power

Georgetown, Texas, certainly is doing it.

The conservative enclave 30 miles north of Austin is set to obtain 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017, becoming only the second city in the nation to kick the fossil-fuel habit.

It’s rightfully proud of the accomplishment and happy to talk about it. Just don’t mention climate change.

“Global warming and that whole debate is not something that we even talk about up here, because it’s not a winning argument for anybody,” says Chris Foster, Georgetown’s manager of resource planning and integration, who secured contracts to buy the electricity generated by wind and solar farms through 2028. “You have a lot of people that debate the science of it. I’m not a meteorologist, not a scientist for it. All I can tell [residents] is what the best deal is.”

The city’s mayor, Dale Ross, echoes Foster. “First and foremost, this was a business deal,” he says. “We have an obligation to our ratepayers to provide the least expensive utilities that are possible, and this provides cost certainty for 25 years. That’s a no-brainer.”

Ninety-seven wind turbines about 500 miles north of Georgetown near Hereford started generating power for the town last year, nearly meeting the town’s energy demand. A 150-megawatt solar farm near Abilene should come online by 2017. By then, Ross says, the city would be generating so much electricity that it could sell the excess back to the grid for other municipalities to purchase.

“Other communities will be going green and not even know it,” he says.

Many of Texas’ 10,000 turbine towers—which supply 9 percent of the state’s electricity—are on private property in West Texas that is leased to energy companies. For landowners, the wind-farm boom has been more of a cash grab than a green revolution.

Taylor Hill in front of a wind turbine blade being transported by train. (Photo: Cory Hill)

The selling point is not that wind farms are a carbon-free, water-free alternative to farming and ranching in a region where water is growing scarcer. Rather, turning to turbines lets farmers make their land even more productive. Cows graze on grass at the base of towers, corn stocks rise toward the blades, and even oil pump jacks share the terrain.

Hereford is the county seat of Deaf Smith County, where a recently finished transmission line has given the 1,500-square-mile jurisdiction easy access to the grid. That’s led to a wind rush in a town that’s marketed itself as the “beef capital of the world.”

Michael Kitten, director of Hereford’s economic development corporation, says landowners and developers have proposed 500 megawatts’ worth of wind projects.

One 240-megawatt project, called Unity Wind, is a joint effort of eight local property owners who have combined 30,000 acres of farmland for 97 turbines and an option for a 100-megawatt solar farm.

From Farming the Land to Harvesting the Wind

Harold Sides, 62, a farmer who grew up in the region, is heading up the project. Sides was born and raised in the nearby town of Vega and started farming in 1981. He grows corn and sorghum and runs a small cattle ranching outfit across three counties. Most of the time, he’s running one tractor while his two sons are miles away doing the same. “We spend a lot of time on the phone,” Sides says.

At his farm just north of Dawn, the vast flatness stretches to the horizon. A steady southerly wind in his face, Sides points 10 miles to the west, where he says the turbines could soon dot the landscape. He says that he hadn’t thought of putting up wind farms until a few years back, when he overheard a conversation in a restaurant about the incoming transmission line.

Soon after, he contacted Melissa Miller, president of Austin-based Miller Wind. Before branching out on her own three years ago, Miller spent a decade working on wind projects for Cielo Wind, one of the state’s first large-scale developers.

She says farmers and ranchers can make $7,000 to $10,000 per turbine a year.

“I’ve got landowners, especially farmers, becoming more interested in wind because their water table is being depleted,” Miller says. “They’re saying, ‘I might not be able to water all of my crops anyway, so I might as well get wind.’ ”

Miller says landowners see wind as providing a dependable check in the mail while taking up a relatively small amount of space on their land.

Will Sides give up growing crops for growing electrons?

“It’s something that we’re weighing, but I don’t think we’ll change what we do as our livelihood,” he says. “We will still have the ability to run our cattle on the grass, around the turbines; we’ll be able to run our plows, and tractors and crops, around the turbines…. It’s not that it takes that away from you; it is added to what you already do.”

Kitten says Deaf Smith County’s wind farms can supplement but not outright replace some of the region’s ranchlands and cultivated cropland.

“One hundred years ago, nobody thought we could ever run out of water, so there was a lot of corn grown and a lot of water used…but farmers have done a lot on their efficiency and water usage,” Kitten says. “If you have another source of income, maybe you don’t graze your land as hard, maybe you don’t push it as hard. But to replace the lifestyle of the farmer or rancher here? No. No.”

Reality Distortion Field

Despite the wind boom, Texas hasn’t forsaken fossil fuels. A 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant, for instance, is planned for West Texas. It would be the first to turn coal into cleaner-burning gas by capturing carbon, sulfur, and mercury before burning a fuel that the project’s backers claim would be cleaner than natural gas. Despite drought and the impact on the Ogallala Aquifer, the state water development board’s 50-year plan conspicuously leaves out planning for the effects of climate change. “At least they openly discussed the topic this time around,” Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon says. “That’s an improvement over not talking about it at all.”

For the Environmental Defense Fund’s Kate Zerrenner, the barriers to climate action start with language.

“We just have larger-scale climate denial that we have to deal with,” says Zerrenner, a climate change solutions project manager in the environmental group’s Austin office. “If I’m in Galveston, I say, ‘This city won’t survive another [Hurricane] Ike, so here are some solutions.’ I mean, even if you’re not sure, even if it’s not man-made, it’s happening. How do you not take action to ensure that the most vulnerable communities in the state are more resilient?”

Old ways die hard. In October, Texas joined 22 other states in suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to block its Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from fossil-fuel power plants.

Texas is suing even though a new EDF report found that the state is well on its way to meeting the plan’s carbon-cutting goals. Texas will be 88 percent of the way to meeting the plan’s targets by 2030 if the rate of wind and solar installations continues. But it remains taboo to suggest that “climate change” fuels that very real progress.

“I’m constantly frustrated by the fact that we’re having to make these arguments on air quality, water quality, and water quantity solutions.… They are all tied to climate change, but we’re not using the same language,” Zerrenner says.

At AzTx Cattle's feedlot, John Josserand is inspecting a handful of dry yellow cow grub, searching for the right words to talk about climate change. “I think we lack a narrative on it because it’s just something we don’t talk about,” he says. “But what I like is hearing different perspectives. I mean, we’re here in the Texas Panhandle—basically on an island. We don’t have the perspective of someone from a big city like Beijing, China, where my friend just sent me a photo, and you couldn’t even see the top of the buildings because of the smog. The air’s clear here, and that’s what we see. We don’t talk about it because we don’t see it.

“When you get past the political conspiracy B.S. and all that, and you’re really just talking about the climate, we don’t have much to say.”

While silence may not be golden when fighting climate change, words matter far less than deeds. And Texans, it’s increasingly clear, know which way the wind is blowing.