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Schendler Part III: Aspen SkiCo and global warming

In my third of three blogs (Part I here and Part II here) in response to the Businessweek article about Aspen Skiing Company’s work (“Little Green Lies”), I’ll end with a discussion of where we might go now at Aspen Skiing Company to address climate change.

First, some context. Thinking about the challenges corporations face in trying to reduce CO2 emissions, I emailed my colleague Randy Udall, who until recently ran an energy efficiency nonprofit near Aspen. I asked about Suncor, which used to have an incredible corporate program to address carbon dioxide emissions, but then ended up blowing it all by developing Alberta’s tar sands. Randy noted that there are some things you simply are not going to “green,” and tar sands (and snowmaking) are pretty near the top of the list. [JR: Well, tar sands is at the top of the list — snowmaking is a ways down.]

The raison d’etre of business is to make money. Making money means using energy. Growing your company generally means using more energy.

I pointed out that realistically, we’re not going to “green” business, though we’ll hopefully make some headway. We’re going to have to green the whole system so that business isn’t as damaging. Or, we’re simply going to fail.

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Randy agreed, pointing out that this is also why a focus on emissions is the wrong way to think about this problem. You have to transform the energy system and find another way to fuel prosperity. Just trying to reduce emissions tends to blind you to what is really needed.

One blogger was very insistent that we stop making artificial snow early in the season. His point was that we need to get radical. Ignoring the fact that we no longer operate snow guns unless it’s appropriately cold out — ie, below 20 degrees F, let’s say we did that. Let’s say it would cut our carbon footprint 5%. And let’s say every ski resort in Colorado did the same thing. Bottom line — it wouldn’t do anything. We’d still be out of business in 50 years. We need to implement these aggressive actions, but we need to think bigger. Below is the climate strategy for ASC moving forward:

1) We need to think of ourselves as a renewable energy development company in addition to a ski area. In Carbondale, we’re developing 150kW of solar panels, in collaboration with Colorado Rocky Mountain School, the utility Xcel, the nonprofit CORE, and the town. What’s unique about the project is that while we’re financing the project, we’re not going to get the electricity. So it won’t reflect in our carbon footprint. Nonetheless, the project wouldn’t happen without us. After our experience with RECs, we’re not going to worry about getting credit for carbon reductions, as long as we’re making emissions reductions occur. We used this model with our 115kW microhydroelectric system as well.

2) Continue to pursue energy efficiency projects and operational changes (like not running rarely used lifts, and yes, taking a close look at snowmaking) to try to drive down real emissions. One approach we are considering is the creation of an annual energy efficiency fund that is a certain portion of revenue, and which gets spent every year on efficiency projects. This is an idea that first surfaced at Fedex but didn’t get implemented there.

3) Realize that the greatest impact we can have is in leveraging policy change. For example: recently, Colorado’s Governor, Bill Ritter, announced a climate plan for the state. We worked with the trade organization Colorado Ski Country USA to draft an editorial. CSCUSA recruited a dozen ski resort CEOs to sign it, and the essay ran in the Denver Post. Ritter needs business support for his plan if it is to succeed, because it is controversial in some cases. (The clean car initiative, in particular.) Also on the policy-influencing front: last year we filed an Amicus Brief on Mass v. EPA. That suit, which has been called the most important environmental lawsuit ever to go to the Supreme Court, won, and forced the EPA to regulate CO2 as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Last month, a Kansas review board denied a coal plant because of the implications of the future carbon emissions. The only legal basis for their denial, as I understand it, was Mass. V. EPA. That we had any small part in that chain of events is encouraging, and suggests that we’ll be able to find even greater opportunities to drive change down the line.

— Auden S.