ASPEN - Industrialist Bill Koch has done the equivalent of a Facebook "unfriending" to Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland and Western Slope environmental activist Ed Marston.
Ireland and Marston said Wednesday that they have been told they aren't welcome to attend a grand opening Nov. 9 of an Aspen Skiing Co.-financed project that produces electricity from methane vented from one of Koch's coal mines near Somerset.
Both men are opposing Koch in some high-profile environmental disputes. Ireland has condemned Koch for allegedly funding opposition to the city of Aspen's proposed hydroelectric plant on Castle Creek. Aspen residents will provide an advisory vote on the project Tuesday.
Marston has doggedly opposed an exchange of public lands to Koch to expand his private ranch holdings near Paonia. He was the co-owner and publisher of the respected High Country News in Paonia from 1983 to 2002, and he remains active in issues affecting Paonia and the rural West.
Despite those long-held differences with Koch, Ireland and Marston initially were invited to attend the grand opening of the coal methane project.
"I had multiple invitations," Marston said. "I've been really active in support of coal-mine methane (for power generation). I was going as someone who lobbied hard for coal methane."
The opening of the plant is a big deal to many environmentalists concerned with climate change. The partners in the project will showcase it to reporters, elected officials, energy-industry officials and environmentalists later this month.
Aspen Skiing Co. invested about $5.5 million in the project. The technology was developed by Vessels Inc. Holy Cross Energy has signed a contract to buy the energy produced. Koch's Oxbow Mining Co. is allowing the use of methane vented from its Elk Creek coal mine.
Auden Schendler, Skico's executive director of sustainability, laid out in an invitation to the event why the project is so environmentally valuable.
"The 3-megawatt project will produce as much energy as (Skico) uses annually - approximately 24 million kilowatt hours," he wrote. "In addition, by destroying methane, a potent greenhouse gas, this project eliminates three times the carbon pollution created by the resort each year."
The plant will eliminate so much carbon dioxide that it will be the equivalent of removing 13,151 vehicles from the road each year, according to Schendler.
The project is the only one of its size in the U.S., he continued. It represents bipartisan support on a highly effective way to combat climate change, and it produces jobs.
Marston said he is excited about the project because use of coal-mine methane for power is so effective. He helped rally Western Slope environmentalists to support a bill introduced last session by state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, that cleared the way for coal-mine methane projects. The bill faced opposition from Front Range environmental groups that were wary of working with the coal industry.
Marston said he worked with Vessels Inc. to help win approval of the bill. Therefore, it came as a surprise when he was informed he couldn't attend the grand opening of the project, though he realized it wasn't a decision by Tom Vessels.
"I have been dis-invited from the Nov. 9 dedication of the Oxbow Mine coal-mine methane electric generator installed by Vessels Inc.," Marston wrote in an email Wednesday.
Marston said Tom Vessels told him that Koch didn't want him at the ceremony. Marston said he has no doubt that was because of his nearly three years of opposition to the Ragged Mountain land exchange promoted by Koch. A bill was introduced in Congress for the land exchange in 2010, but it has stalled.
A spokesman for Oxbow Mining couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
Marston said Koch ought to be able to separate out Marston's positions and realize he is an ally on the coal-mine methane project without holding a grudge about the opposition to the land exchange. If people cannot make those distinctions, it will be "eternal gridlock," he said.
"I just thought it was too bad," he said.
Ireland shrugged off the shunning.
"Auden Schendler told me that Mr. Koch did not want my presence," Ireland said. "I will honor that request. It's about the project, not about the personalities."
Ireland said various people told him about the event, including Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan. He planned to attend as a proponent of alternative energy sources.
Ireland said he really wasn't surprised Koch didn't want him on his mine property.
"He's got a 'Sick of Mick' bumper sticker on his Hummer. I've seen pictures of that," Ireland said.