Climate Change Is Fracking Society

by Auden Schendler

Fracking isn’t only happening in the gas fields. Because of the never before seen and almost impossible to grok (or solve) problem of climate change, fracking is happening all over the environmental movement.

Moms are fighting kids. Boards are fighting staff. Nonprofits are fighting each other. Left is fighting right and left. Republicans are getting sick of their weird and lame leaders, like Romney, Gingrich, and McCain who clearly understood climate science until they didn’t understand it, and are spinning off on their own to fix the thing.

Just this year, I supported state legislation on a key climate issue—capturing methane from coal mines—and was opposed by an NGO I’m on the board of, and another one I’ve supported for years. In fact, I was fighting all my colleagues and friends in the environmental world—except for those who agreed with me.

Just last week I hiked with my friend Pete McBride, a green too, who didn’t quite agree with me on a local hydroelectric project. And last week, the business I work for partnered with a coal mine to protect climate.  To quote Steve Austin: “I can’t hold her, she’s breaking up! She’s breaking up!” Or as Vince Lombardi pointedly asked: “What the hell is going on out here?!!”

What’s going on out here is that Boulder and Colorado Springs recently looked like bad movie sets: They’ve been on fire. Sea level rise is accelerating. Temperature records are getting destroyed. Greenland’s ice sheet is destabilizing. The jackass in the local paper who keeps writing that we haven’t warmed since 1998 has finally shut his pie hole. People are eying the dry brush in their yards with a combination of paranoia and terror. Climate change might as well be called GAME change: it’s disruptive innovation all on its own. And it’s a monster.

The International Energy Agency, those staid, dusty scriveners, recently said the planet is on a perfect trajectory for 11 degrees F warming by 2100. Doesn’t matter what you believe: That kind of warming won’t be “good for us” (as at least one simpleton at National Review has argued) or is simply “an engineering problem” as ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson idiotically claimed the other day. When your house is underwater or blown away, or if a country’s crops fail, or if Malaria kills your five year old girl, it’s not an “engineering problem.”

It’s that stark nature of the problem that has us eating each other alive. Look at me—I’m losing all decorum in this essay!  In Aspen, CO, old school enviros who helped create the wilderness movement are fighting pitched battles against other environmentalists who support a 1 MW microhydro plant that would generate 8% of the city’s power. “Protect the stream!” They yell. Climate activists, including the mayor, are fighting back, arguing that you lose the river anyway if you don’t solve climate. Somebody’s got to lead because everywhere is somebody’s backyard.

And if Aspen—as a center of wealth and influence that can afford to try stuff and share those stories—can’t lead, then it might as well throw in the towel and default to just doing conspicuous consumption. Solving climate is going to hurt. We’re going to break things. And we’re starting with our relationships, friendships, and old alliances. There is a kernel of hope in this, and it’s that whenever an issue become so large it starts to cost you friendships, that means it’s front and center in the public conversation. Civil Rights. Gay Marriage. Remember that taxation without representation split Ben Franklin from his son. And once a topic gets into the public blood, it’s on its way to resolution.

Alliances will be the first to go, fracked forever or sometimes replaced by weird new bedfellows, like the kind of date you might pick up at the Star Wars bar. This month, as I mentioned, my business inked a deal to capture methane vented from a coal mine—one of the largest point sources greenhouse gases in Colorado—to make electricity. The power produced is triple carbon negative because methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and this project destroys it. Our partner is a coal mine that carries membership in the Colorado Mining Association, which is  a state climate denial machine that on its website cites a Fox report called “Global Warming: The Great Delusion.” Uncomfortable? Hells yes. But desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a whole new world.

Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.

38 Responses to Climate Change Is Fracking Society

  1. fj says:

    Nice post.

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    There are easy targets such as fracking, tar sands, coal and 3/11 (Fukushima). Then beyond that, there are stakeholder issues.

    There’s too much multinational baloney on the airwaves about how to inhibit climate change. Mowing down one forest and planting a second forest doesn’t make a company particularly green, and setting up a natural forest to burn down doesn’t help either.

    We need to articulate a clear, shared, near-100% understanding of which stakeholders have legitimate environmental concerns, and which groups are no more than two oil company presidents and a sock puppet.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    Outstanding post.

    I think this highlights that the sense of urgency among the voters and consumers who are not currently engaged with the topic of climate change increases, we’re going to see a major realignment of organizations, affiliations, etc.

    While I don’t think that’s per se a good or bad thing, I think it’s a positive step that it’s happening simply because it will have to happen before we get where we need to be in terms of dealing with CC in a significant way.

  4. BillD says:

    This post illustrates why a substantial carbon tax or cap and trade is a good idea. For fossil fuels, this should include methane releases, burning flares etc. Clearly, a market system that assigns costs to GHG emissions is the way to go, since it’s not practical to limit emissions by regulating each source.

  5. Ken Barrows says:

    The problem is the most “environmentalists” still subscribe to the “growth” paradigm: plenty of fossil fueled travel and expanding communities. As long as they cling to this model, we’re not going anywhere fast.

  6. SecularAnimist says:

    Auden Schendler wrote: “my business inked a deal to capture methane vented from a coal mine—one of the largest point sources greenhouse gases in Colorado—to make electricity. The power produced is triple carbon negative because methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and this project destroys it”

    No, it is not “carbon negative” any more than burning methane from a natural gas well is “carbon negative”. You still emitting carbon into the atmosphere. And you are also enabling the coal mine to continue to operate profitably.

    You should be “uncomfortable” — because what you are doing is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    A great topic — thanks Auden. It deserves much discussion.

    We are fragmented.

    One of the largest causes of the fragmentation on “our side” is our own political leadership — President Obama — who we elected on the basis of what we thought he stood for and the promises he made. Because he has failed to live up to those promises; because he doesn’t even seem to try in many cases; because many of his actual decisions and policies contradict them (his promises); and because he is not saying anything explicit and credible to indicate that he has a serious plan to address climate change; — because of all these things, there is a very big (and I’d say growing) friction between people and organizations who readily defer to these failures based on the “lesser of two evils” argument, and who stay blindly “loyal” to the Democratic party, and (on the other hand) people who believe that doing so is ultimately a self-defeating approach, and that it is actually part of the status quo.

    The only way (that I can see) for that friction to go away, and for people to begin working together much more effectively, is for us to put enough REAL pressure on President/Candidate Obama, and the Dems, that they will be forced to get serious and to convince us ALL — through their actions, not words — that supporting them is warranted. But most people do not seem willing to put that much (i.e., sufficient) pressure on President Obama and the Dems to even have a chance of accomplishing that task. Presently, the President takes the people in the climate movement for granted, and most of the people in the climate movement seem intent on making sure the President knows that he can get away with that!


    I think the whole topic deserves much more discussion. The movement is not only fragmented (for this and other reasons), but the President’s silence, actions (“all of the above” energy strategy), and inaction undercut the movement’s credibility with the broader public — that is, they make it seem as though the climate change problem is not really that big. Really, still, the only thing that is causing an inching-forward of the public’s concern about climate change is the actual extremely hot weather. The President is not helping. The media are not helping in any sort of responsible and proactive way. We are still basically in the mode of counting on weather disasters to “teach us the lesson we need to learn” — and that is not a good road to stay on.

    In any case, thanks for the great post.


  8. M Tucker says:

    It is impossible to avoid conflict. From the people who simply want to begin with ending fossil fuel generation of electricity to those who say that it is impossible to do anything until capitalism is destroyed, we will have conflict. Cooperation is dead! Welcome to the age of “my why or no way at all!”

  9. Paul Magnus says:

    Have to agree. It’s not a solution. It maybe a step in the right direction, but I believe personally that we need wwII intervention myself to tackle this issue.

  10. No, this is incorrect. As Hillary Clinton and many climate scientists are now pointing out, a way to buy time on dealing with CO2 is to address short lived greenhouse gases like methane, soot and ozone. This protects human health and buys us about .5 deg C so we have some time to deal with CO2. If you don’t address, say, methane leaking from mines, it simply goes into the atmosphere and warms the planet. our project is independent of the viabiity of the coal mine–when the mine closes, this project continues.

  11. SecularAnimist says:

    Auden Schendler wrote: “a way to buy time on dealing with CO2 is to address short lived greenhouse gases like methane, soot and ozone … If you don’t address, say, methane leaking from mines, it simply goes into the atmosphere and warms the planet”

    Thank you for your reply to my comment.

    When you burn the methane leaking from that mine, that produces CO2, which simply goes into the atmosphere and warms the planet.

    Is that better than simply releasing the methane into the atmosphere, where it degrades into CO2? Maybe.

    But it is absolutely NOT “carbon negative” as stated in your original article. “Carbon negative” means actually removing carbon from the atmosphere.

    By burning the methane, you are emitting carbon into the atmosphere; at best, you are spreading the greenhouse effect of that carbon over a longer-term period of time by releasing it as CO2 rather than concentrating the effect over a shorter-term period of time by releasing it as methane.

    That may or may not be useful, but it is definitely not “carbon negative”.

    Unfortunately, a lot of things that are presented as ways to “buy time to deal with CO2” really turn out to be ways to postpone dealing with CO2 — or at least wind up being used for that purpose. Which is probably the interest of the coal mine operator in this case.

  12. John C. Wilson says:

    When methane levels are increasing continuously it does not much matter that any particular molecule of CH4 is short-lived. The tired canard “23 times more potent than CO2” applies to a given mole of CH4 over a century. When CH4 increases continuously the only meaningful potency is present potency. Right now methane is at least 100 times more potent than CO2. We do not have a century to play with this stuff.

    Serious measures would begin with closing the mine. Then close the airport. Close the ski runs. Aspen for those who hike in.

  13. SecularAnimist: So I want to make sure you understand what’s happening here. We are, in effect, swapping methane for CO2. Methane is a vastly more potent greenhoue gas than CO2,so yes, it is much, much better for the planet if you burn that CO2. That’s why simply FLARING the gas is something you can create carbon credits from doing. But in this case, you also get a ton of baseload electricity. A key point here is that we live in the real world, not an idealized fantasy land. Right now, today, this mine is venting 14 million cubic feet of methane every day. You can either let that methane go and suffer the consequences, flare it and do better, or make power and do even better. We are REMOVING methane that would otherwise go to the atmosphere here. The environmental attribute of this project are not in dispute, even by the environmentalists I was fighting on methane legisliation.

  14. sorry I meant “burn that methane, above.”

  15. Right, so how do you go about closing the mine, the ski resort, and the airport? you can’t just close them, because you are not God. What we have to do is create the conditions that will lead to carbon polluters either going out of business or having to adapt and become clean. And the way to get at that is an escalating carbon tax. The ski resort either finds clean power solutions or fails. The coal mine either figures out sequestration or closes,etc.

  16. Jeff:

    The group that is quite effectively and intelligently doing what you advocate in terms of action is called the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. Check them out.

  17. Paul Magnus says:

    Oh love this…. “The jackass in the local paper who keeps writing that we haven’t warmed since 1998 has finally shut his pie hole.”

  18. John C. Wilson says:

    Ski run closes anyway when there’s no more snow. Do it now or do it later under more adverse circumstances

  19. John McCormick says:

    Auden, you are addressing individuals who cling tot he hope that all of us will throw our car keys into the woods and get on a bicycle. Its become a religious belief that Americans will do the right thing if Presidnet Obama utters “climate change must be stopped”. We are a near hopeless public awaiting Snookie’s baby.

  20. Artful Dodger says:

    John, what leads you to believe closing the mine would stop the methane release? It is released within the mine, and will seep to the surface one way or another. You either burn it, or let it escape. Flaring is a short-term band-aide, whereas REPLACING existing coal-fired generation with methane fired generation is ACTUALLY carbon negative, from the perspective of the City’s total carbon footprint because it is reduced. Not that it is zero.

  21. Artful Dodger says:

    … nawh, he just moved to Farcebook. ;^)

  22. Auden, this is a great piece, reminding us how different the world already is: environmentalists can stop worrying about saving the planet. It will be fine– just give it a few million years. Instead, we need to focus on building the political coalitions to create livable communities and stabilize the climate.

  23. Mark Shapiro says:

    Excellent, thought-provoking post. My 2 cents: I agree that burning the coal mine methane for electricity is a plus, much better than letting it escape. I empathize with my fellow purists, but good always beats worse.

    Don’t worry, we can’t decarbonize the global economy too quickly.

  24. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks, Auden. I’ll check them out (just visited the website, very briefly). That said, may I ask a hopefully simple/quick question …

    I’m looking for a group that is taking this sort of firm stand with respect to President Obama: “Dear President Obama, if you want my vote in the upcoming election, you must speak out clearly and honestly about climate change (and a lot), promise to not approve Keystone XL, begin educating the public about climate change, inject it as a vital issue in the upcoming election, tell us clearly and concretely what you will do to address climate change if reelected (and in no uncertain terms), and convince me that you CAN and WILL get the damn job done this time, if you’re reelected. If you don’t do these things in the next few months, in order to regain my trust and deserve my vote, you’ll lose my vote. (There seems to be an excellent Green Party candidate running this time around, and I’ll be eager to vote for her if you don’t do the things just mentioned.) Period.”

    Auden, is the Citizens Climate Lobby taking such a stand? If so, are they taking it firmly and communicating it loudly? If not, are there any other organized groups who are taking such a stand? Or, is my only choice to take that stand by myself and, if President Obama doesn’t do the things I listed, vote Green?

    Thanks Auden.

    Be Well,


  25. Gestur says:

    Once again, Jeff, I’m with you 100% on this. I’ve written long letters to various politicians laying out my position and formal argument for not supporting Obama unless and until he starts to seriously discuss climate change and the need to address it quickly and meaningfully.

    Please keep reminding others of this point.

    Auden, let me also join others here in thanking you for this outstanding piece.

  26. John C. Wilson says:

    You’re right as far as you go, Lodger. I understand there’s methane being released anyway. You can control the methane whether the mine is open or closed. If the mine is closed that’s fossil carbon that stays put.

    Much of sustainibility is about doing things that you have to do anyway and doing them now. Aspen as we have known it was always an obscene notion. Climate change is going to end the sport of skiing and it’s going to change our idea of vacation. Keeping dinosaurs like Aspen or coal-fired electrical generation on life-support can continue a little longer if someone insists but both are pure negatives and have been for some time.

  27. Jeff and Gestur:

    Thanks for weighing in on this. I think this should be an open question to the blogosphere and CP since I don’t have a full answer, but here goes: the three groups getting close to this are, Citizen’s Climate Lobby, and Rocky Anderson. But they aren’t exactly doing it (I’ll explain) because there’s an element of the Blazing Saddles scene where Bart puts the gun to his head and says: “Nobody move or I’ll shoot!” There’s a chance Obama will move on climate in his second term. There is NO chance Romney will. Citizen’s Climate Lobby is pressuring politicians to force them to move on climate because that’s what politicians do–they respond to pressure. 350 has very explicitly been holding Obama’s feet to the fire on XL and others issues, but I don’t think they’ve said “we won’t vote for you” though that might be implicit. And Rocky Anderson is articulating your position pretty well and presents the alternative, but again, it may be that we shoot ourselves by backing him. I think also Obama’s team must think that they CANT speak out on climate too much or they will lose the election, and so they’ll risk your vote to win the big swing demographic.
    Anyway, to conclude, remember what FDR said to a group of reformers: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
    His point was that until they lead the way, they shouldn’t expect leaders to follow. This is 350’s thesis.

  28. Gestur says:

    Quoting from my own piece on this, there’s a zero chance of getting meaningful climate change legislation passed in a second Obama term if he does NOT campaign rigorously on it. To me, this is just Realpolitik. More formally, campaigning rigorously on it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting something passed. And Obama and his team understand this. Quoting now from the long and thoughtful piece titled “The Second Term” (June 18, 2012) by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker magazine:

    Axelrod told me that Obama has learned from recent history. “President (George W.) Bush claimed a mandate after the last election and took steps that he never ran on,” Axelrod said pointing to Bush’s miscalculation on Social Security. “You have to govern boldly, but with the humility of knowing that you can’t assume that the people embrace your case—you have to make it, even after the election. The thing that trips you up, and certainly tripped up Bush, is the assumption that, if you win (reëlection), you can them embark on an agenda that is wholly different from the one you campaigned on.”

    Apparently, what I call Realpolitik is considered accepted wisdom within the current White House.

    If it is a necessary condition, how do you get Obama to campaign on it? You threaten him and do so with such conviction and with such arguments that they damn well believe you. That’s how.

    There’s a lot more to my formal argument for withholding support for Obama and actually doing so if necessary, but let’s be clear about what’s a necessary condition here for any meaningful legislation to be passed in a second Obama term.

    Peace and thanks again for your piece.

  29. nwr says:

    Two quick thoughts on the ‘taking a stand’ responses:
    1) 350 and friends were particularly effective on Keystone because they were actually willing to get arrested in front of the Whitehouse; that’s taking a stand. (Impressively McKibben, Speth and Hansen (also on CCL Board) were among those locked up.) I don’t see many others with that level of effective commitment… so, the ongoing question, is more of this approach required to get Obama to move, in comparison to say the Civil Rights movement, is it actually effective at a broader policy scale?
    Second, what about groups moving state / local policy? That is where many of the solutions are being incubated and tested in real time. For kicks, on the spectrum of large vs small action, you have virtually nothing to show for 20 years of UN work(an international lever), lots happening locally (small levers), and ? happening with US federal policy… how much time and money do you continue to put into federal lobbying for example? Does a cost / benefit analysis exist anywhere?

  30. Another alternative would be to close the mine and seal it up. Then it should be releasing neither methane nor carbon.

  31. Reducing carbon emissions should be measured quantitatively against an overall budget, calibrated in turn to limit emissions to a specific level.

    Then you can tell if burning the methane is enough to get within the reductions budget, or not.

    If not, then an entity with pull like the Aspen Ski Company should spend it’s marbles on losing and sealing the mine.

    My point is that global emissions have reached a point where just “doing better” is not necessarily doing enough. Because there is essentially a fixed amount of carbon we can put into the atmosphere between now and 2050, 2100, etc. and not cross major tipping points.

    Reducing the rate – just doing better – is no longer enough. No longer enough to necessarily avoid crossing major tipping points.

    People who understand and care have to demand that we set and meet adequate carbon budgets.

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Don’t fall for the ‘market magic’ baloney. Has the evidence of the last forty years of neo-liberal disaster not taught you anything? A ‘market’ solution means leaving it to the power of money. That means speculation, bubbles in asset classes, say pollution permits or carbon off-sets, deliberately induced volatility in prices to maximise speculative returns, derivatives trading and speculation, and the consecrating, as ever, of profit maximisation, not rapid de-carbonisation as the goal. Far more credible and likely to succeed is a carbon tax, steadily rising at a known rate (giving industry certainty in their plans to reduce emissions)and hypothecated to renewable research, development and installation and to tax relief for the poor.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes we are-to Hell.

  34. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Jeff, the very essence of Plan Obama was to demoralise the Left in the USA. By buying the ‘Hopium of the Masses’ that Obama peddled so cynically and brilliantly, the better elements of society were filled with false hope, and as that has been callously and calculatedly dashed over the last three years, they, to large degree, have been bitterly disillusioned. Their withdrawal from politics, signaled in the 2010 elections, is the icing on the cake. The Hopium will soon flow again, like milk and honey, then dry up for four more years. I hate to say it, but Nader and Chomsky, amongst others, predicted the Obama trajectory with uncanny accuracy.

  35. DRT says:

    Auden, If the proposal advocated by Citizen’s Climate Lobby was in effect, would the methane leaking from the coal mine have the fee from the fee and dividend program applied to it?

  36. Nicola F says:

    There is a lot more than power generation in the use of Natural gas. 33% of NG goes to manufacturing. Let’s think outside the box, for a moment. What if we would use NG to manufacture polymers needed for making cheap photovoltaic cells?

  37. Good question. Short answer is that methane from coal mines is not regulated, so no. But the more interesting question is what if it ever is regulated? I’d think then that a mine would pay for that leakage, and that a project like ours would then be incentivized because it would reduce that tax.

  38. DRT says:

    Thanks for your response. Regarding the short answer, are you saying that under the bill proposed by Pete Stark or the bill proposed by Citizen’s Climate Lobby, that methane emissions from coal mines would not be regulated, where regulated means assessing the fee of ‘fee and dividend’ against those methane emissions?

    I concur that all GHG emissions from all fuel & energy production ‘should’ have the fee applied to it. I just can’t figure out if the Stark bill or the CCL bill includes a provision to do so.