Aspen Skiing Co. sends strong message to critics of its actions on climate change
2021 Sustainability Report makes case for political activism
Aspen Skiing Co. reduced the amount of carbon emissions it produced in 2020 compared with the prior two years, but the company’s environmental guru isn’t crowing about the accomplishment.
Auden Schendler, Skico’s senior vice president for sustainability and community engagement, said reducing the carbon footprint is a worthy goal but not one Skico or any other company should be focused on.
Instead, he believes companies need to prioritize undertaking political action to sway government policies on global warming issues and to get energy providers to commit to increasing renewable energy sources.
Schendler said sustainability reports like the one Skico regularly produces are typically just a diversion from the bigger issue. Skico tried to shake things up with its report this year. It calls out the oil and gas industry for its role in global warming and features a section called “Hypocrites Unite!”
“The notion that a business like ours that has a large carbon footprint and operates luxury hotels can’t speak out on climate is precisely what the fossil fuel industry wants the public to believe,” the sustainability report says. “And they have been successful. The primary attack we receive when we speak out: You’re hypocrites. You use energy, too.”
In an interview this week, Schendler said calling ski resort operators hypocrites and trying to shame them into specific actions equates to “totally letting them off the hook.”
“We could respond to that criticism with efficiency, renewable energy credits and carbon offsets and not change any system — not change our utilities and not change our global systems,” Schendler said. “We’re calling that out, saying if you want to attack a ski resort, then ask them to do the things that will solve the climate problem, not pretend to solve it.”
He hopes to create unity within the broader environmental movement so there is a cohesive approach to global warming rather than divisiveness that he feels plays into the hands of oil and gas companies.
“There is a cluelessness, frankly, to the environmental community around climate where they are essentially giving resorts this easy way out,” he continued. “It’s easy as pie to buy cheap carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates and then they’d be like, ‘Oh, OK, I guess you’re not a hypocrite.’”
But there is “plenty of documentation” that carbon offsets — actions such as planting trees to make up for emissions — are useless, according to Schendler. The carbon is still going in the air. Most of the electricity generated is still from coal-fired plants.
“We’re way past that,” Schendler said.
Skico’s 2021 Sustainability Report goes into detail about its lobbying efforts and political activism on climate. “Business as usual is putting us out of business,” the report declares.
Schendler points to Skico’s work with Holy Cross Energy, a cooperative that is a major supplier of electricity in the Aspen and Vail regions, as moving away from business as usual. Skico has worked since 2008 to get candidates elected for the board of directors that support renewable energy initiatives.
Skico has also partnered with the utility on renewable energy projects, such as capturing methane from a former coal mine near Paonia, creating energy and feeding it to the grid. Holy Cross was at 44% renewable energy at the start of 2021 and increased to 49% as of November. It has a goal to reach 100% by 2030.
Skico has changed all light bulbs in its facilities to LEDs, earned the environmental LEED-certification for seven buildings it constructed and retrofitted old buildings to make them more energy efficient.
“We’ve done great stuff on the ground, but it’s just not close to enough,” Schendler said. “The only thing that really mattered is that our utility got off coal.”
That has reduced Skico’s carbon footprint and will continue to do so.
Skico produced 24,686 tons of CO2 in 2020, in part because the ski season was cut short by about one month during the lockdown at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The emissions were lower than the 25,557 tons produced by the company in 2019 and 24,593 tons in 2018.
In 2020, nearly 48% of Skico’s carbon emissions were from electricity use and another 36% from burning natural gas. However, while electricity use is climbing each year, the amount of carbon emitted from electricity is falling because Holy Cross is boosting its renewable sources.
Over time, Schendler hopes to drastically cut Skico’s natural gas use.
“We’re going to move to electrification,” he said. “When you heat buildings by natural gas the way we do, they emit CO2 for their entire lifecycle. But if you go electric, they are going to get greener and greener every year.”
While Schendler is a proponent of political action — lobbying in Washington, joining litigation aimed to force policy change, staging events to engage the public — he is still proud of Skico accomplishments to reduce its carbon footprint.
For example, Skico spent $30,000 to install an electric pizza oven at Merry-Go-Round Restaurant at Aspen Highlands for this season. It spent another $20,000 to change the building’s wiring to handle the load.
On another front, the company is converting its fleet of snowcats for grooming and other tasks to high-efficiency models. The highest level pollution controls in the U.S. for equipment that uses diesel fuel is Tier IV. But 17 of Skico’s 29 Prinoth snowcats achieve Stage V, a European standard that exceeds the highest U.S. level of efficiency. Next ski season, 25 of the snowcats will be in the high efficiency category, according to Skico’s sustainability report.
Even with such advances, Aspen as a community and Skico as the operator of the ski areas will always face skepticism on the environmental front because of the power-sucking mansions that dominate town and the private jets stacked at the airport.
Schendler said the skepticism is misplaced.
“It’s not Aspen’s role to self-flagellate,” he said. “We have private jets. That is part of the global economy.
“It’s Aspen’s role to fix the whole enchilada, because potentially we have power to do that,” he said. “So if we’re going to have private jets and (commercial) jets, we’re obligated to lobby for the big systemic fix — which would be a carbon tax, it would be more regulation of pollution from airlines,” he continued.
“You pick your policy path, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, pick it. We have to be putting our finger on that scale and if we’re not, then all the criticism is worthy.”