Despite the best efforts to make the Winter X Games in Aspen as “green” as possible this weekend, a big carbon footprint comes with the territory, said Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Co. vice president of sustainability.
Skico doesn’t have specific data on the carbon footprint, but Schendler acknowledges it is “a big impact.”
Thousands of spectators and participants travel to Aspen via personal vehicles and aircraft to create an immense amount of off-site impacts. Once in Aspen, their travel impacts are limited by the lack of parking and the widespread availability of buses.
At the venue itself, staging the spectacular showcase sucks down an incredible amount of energy. There are several intense lights to illuminate the astounding tricks in the halfpipe during prime-time TV viewing at night. There are the heated tents where VIPs can stay cozy despite the outdoor chill. There is a fleet of snowmobiles whisking athletes, course workers and camera operators up the slope all day every day of the event.
But there is an undisputed king when it comes to producing greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the event, according to Schendler.
“No question — snowmaking,” he said.
Skico makes considerably more snow at the Buttermilk base to ensure the courses are covered for the four-day event than it would without the event. He estimated that the snowmaking at Buttermilk accounts for 5 percent of Skico’s overall annual greenhouse-gas emissions.
Schendler doesn’t make excuses or apologies for the event’s contribution to the company’s carbon footprint. Skico has always acknowledged that the ski industry is an intensive producer of greenhouse gases, he said. And the Winter X Games are a vital part of the branding of Aspen-Snowmass.
“It’s the Olympics of our world,” Schendler said.
He later added, “We’re in this business, and we’ve never said we’re going to get out of this business.”
Skico is a leader in the ski industry for lobbying for national policy on greenhouse-gas limits. Schendler doesn’t believe that’s a hypocritical position that’s at odds with hosting energy-sucking events. The company is an advocate for alternative energy. It has invested in a plant that converts methane vented from a coal mine into electricity as well as hydropower and wind power through Holy Cross Energy. Battling climate change doesn’t require getting out of the business, Schendler has said. It means taking energy-efficient steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, investing in clean energy and activism for policy change on a national and international scale.
Several athletes participating in the X Games belong to Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit advocacy group that engages the “global snow sports community to lead the fight against climate change,” according to its mission statement. Skico is a partner with Protect Our Winters and recruits athletes to help with the effort.
Skico purposely doesn’t invest in programs designed to offset the carbon emissions from the X Games or its other business operations, Schendler said.
“We probably know more about offset than anyone,” he said.
And the company doesn’t believe they really do any good. Skico’s 2012 Sustainability Report amplified that point.
“ASC could easily spend $40K annually on cheap Renewable Energy Certificates and offsets and claim carbon neutrality,” the report said. “But that doesn’t do anything on climate. Since it’s a distraction that offers the illusion of action, it’s worse than doing nothing.”
In other words, Skico won’t plant 20,000 trees to offset the carbon emissions of the X Games.
However, by replacing its snowmaking guns with vastly more efficient models, it reduces the carbon footprint of the event.
“We’ve been replacing these guns aggressively for years now,” Schendler said.
The old style of snowmaking guns operates at 96 kilowatts, nearly the same as 100 hair dryers, Schendler said. The newer models operate at 4 kilowatts.
Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of mountain operations, said there are roughly 200 snow guns at the company’s four ski areas. While about 95 percent have been physically replaced, it’s more like 100 percent because the old ones rarely are used, he said. The company has purchased high-efficiency equipment from Rubis, Borax, Impulse, SV10 and Saphyr’s. As a rule of thumb, the quieter they are, the more efficient they are, he said.
Skico also is exploring creating a dirt base for some of the features at Buttermilk that are used for the X Games. The halfpipe already has a dirt foundation that just needs to be covered with snow. That requires significantly less snow overall, thus creating less demand for snowmaking. Now that ESPN has extended its contract to keep the X Games at Buttermilk for five more years, Skico will look at building more dirt foundations for features such as ramps, according to Schendler.
ESPN engages in various practices to help make the X Games “green.” Concerts at Wagner Park in Aspen will follow the city’s Aspen ZGreen checklist — ecologically sound steps required to get a special-events permit. Buttermilk is outside town limits, so the checklist doesn’t apply, according to Liz O’Connell, senior environmental health specialist for the city of Aspen. Nevertheless, ESPN prides itself on taking many of the same steps voluntarily, she said.
ESPN officials didn’t respond to a request for information about the green steps they are taking at Buttermilk. An initiative called X Games Environmentality has been part of the event since it was founded in 1995. That means recycling everything from aluminum cans to construction materials; use of plates, cups, napkins and silverware produced from eco-friendly materials such as corn and sugar-cane byproduct; and composting leftovers. In some years, the initiative has included planting trees in nearby national forests to offset carbon production.
A company called Repreve released a media statement earlier this month saying it returned as the official recycling sponsor of the X Games this year. It turned 100,000 recycled bottles into ESPN course signage and lanyards for the event, it said. The company also was scheduled to hand out thousands of Repreve lime-green beanies, each made from six recycled plastic bottles, during the Women’s superpipe finals on Saturday.
Schendler said recruiting athletes to speak on climate change is the biggest step that can be taken to offset the X Games’ carbon footprint. Snowboarding professional and Aspen resident Gretchen Bleiler is on the board of directors of Protect Our Winters and regularly speaks to schools and fans about climate change.
When athletes speak out on climate change, their fans tend to listen, Schendler said, and hopefully get inspired to take action.
“That’s more important than anything that’s being done,” Schendler said.