ASPEN - A foundation funded by employees of Aspen Skiing Co. has given roughly $300,000 in grants over the past decade to protect some areas of Colorado from oil and gas development and to ensure that drilling is environmentally sensitive, according to an analysis by The Aspen Times.
The Environment Foundation has awarded another $92,000 in grants to efforts promoting alternative energy or climate policy that reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, according to its record of contributions.
The Environment Foundation is funded through voluntary contributions by Skico employees. "Substantial support" is added from the Aspen Community Foundation and Skico's Family Fund, according to the website for the Environment Foundation.
Skico employees on the Environment Foundation's board of directors decide each spring and fall which applicants will receive grants, which typically range from $1,000 to $20,000.
The foundation was formed in 1998, but it didn't dive into energy-policy issues until spring 2004.
An organization called Western Colorado Congress has received $90,000 from the foundation. The organization coordinates residents of the Western Slope to give them a collective voice in issues such as "slowing the onrush of oil-shale development to studying the toxic substances used in oil fields," according to a grant awarded by the Environment Foundation.
Skico employees also have contributed $19,000 in recent years to help the Thompson Divide Coalition in its mission to prevent gas extraction west of Carbondale. It has contributed another $19,000 to Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop for "oil and gas defense" issues, according to grant awards.
Matt Hamilton, executive director of the Environment Foundation, said the organization's contributions on energy issues coincided with the boom of natural-gas extraction in western Garfield County in the mid-2000s. He noted that the foundation still supports a broad range of environmental issues.
"It's not the only issue," Hamilton said of oil and gas extraction. "But I would say over the last four, five, six years, we've taken a significant interest."
While the frenetic pace of drilling has slowed, it is spreading closer to the Roaring Fork Valley. Gas companies have applied to drill in Thompson Divide, an area west of the Crystal River, stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort on the north to McClure Pass on the south.
The Environment Foundation's broad support was reflected in the fall 2012 grant cycle. It gave money to such diverse causes as Fat City Farms' program to create an edible schoolyard and agricultural biology program at Roaring Fork High School and the Lower Valley Trails Group to help build a pedestrian and cycling trail west of Glenwood Springs.
Still, energy issues are soaking up a major share of the foundation's grants. In the fall 2012 cycle, $30,000 out of $115,000 went to energy-development issues or organizations.
"Some board members would say, 'No drilling,'" Hamilton said. "Most board members are saying, 'Drill responsibly.'"
The foundation gives grants with the goal of helping strike a "balance" in energy development between producing much-needed resources and protecting the environment, Hamilton said.
"I don't think it's a new direction," he said. "It's an effort to make sure we have a balance."
Since spring 2004, the Environment Foundation has awarded 35 grants to organizations in the thick of the oil-and-gas-development fight. Another nine grants have gone to causes or groups involved in climate policy.
Hamilton said he doesn't believe Skico sticks out as a funder of anti-gas efforts. He said the company isn't picking a "fight" with the gas industry. There are just different views on how extraction should be undertaken.
"The bottom line is we all live in this region. We all care for it," Hamilton said.
Still, some of the causes Skico supports undoubtedly rankle the oil-and-gas industry. The Environment Foundation contributed funds for the production of "Split Estate," a documentary that looks at the health impacts of gas drilling.
Earth Justice and Western Resource Advocates received a $7,500 grant for "defending the Rocky Mountain West from irresponsible oil and gas development."
The Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance received $6,000 to help its effort to force gas driller Antero to space its wells 10 acres apart.
Hamilton said those grants are "a drop in the bucket" compared with the money gas companies are spending to get in position to explore and extract resources.