Aspen’s dirty little secret " its airport
August 15, 2008
ASPEN ” Imagine if 15,000 Hummer H2s magically sprouted wings and started flying around Aspen, making 30,000 trips in and out of town each year.
That ridiculous display probably would open people’s eyes to the issues of fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to global warming. The big, boxy sport utility vehicles are associated with the excesses of the pre-$4 gasoline era.
It isn’t apparent to most people, but an equivalent of that Hummer parade occurs each year at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. On any given weekend during the heart of summers and winters, scores of sleek, powerful Gulfstream, Challenger and Falcon jets are parked on the tarmac or whisking their clients in and out of town. Those jets are the aviation industry equivalent of gas-guzzling SUVs roaring down the road with single occupants.
Those jets are also a major reason why a 2005 study found that Aspen’s per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are nearly double that of the United States as a whole. The city of Aspen and the Aspen Skiing Co. have both made headlines near and far through their commitments to reduce their contributions to global warming. The Skico has even set up a website and campaign called savesnow.com to raise awareness about the risks of climate change. So it’s more than a little ironic that Aspen’s per-capita emissions are so high.
Aspen has no industrial sources of greenhouse gases. Its “McMansions” ” the second homes that sit empty for much of the year and consume large amounts of energy ” are an easy target for critics of the small town’s big carbon footprint. But it is transportation in general, and air travel in particular, that are the culprits for most of Aspen’s emissions.
“It’s a very fossil fuel-intensive industry,” said Cliff Runge, the former operator of the business that served private aircraft at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. “The ‘greenest’ aircraft out there have fuel economies similar to that of a Hummer, and they just go downhill from there.”
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that aircraft are responsible for only about 3 percent of overall U.S. greenhouses gases. But in Aspen, air travel is the major producer of those gases.
The city of Aspen conducted an inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 as part of its Canary Initiative, a program designed to identify and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. That inventory concluded that 41 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions were produced by private aircraft operations and commercial airline flights.
Commercial flights into and out of Aspen, and by Aspen-bound tourists and residents using other airports, accounted for 22.2 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, because so many people use commercial aircraft, the actual emissions per passenger-mile were low. There were 180,519 passenger boardings on commercial flights at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2006.
Commercial jets emit about 0.53 pounds of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, per passenger-mile. That is about the same as two people traveling in a large SUV, according to the city’s study.
Private jets typically get less than 2 mpg and often haul only a handful of passengers. That sends the emissions per passenger-mile of private aircraft soaring.
“A Gulfstream G-III ” one of the largest jets flying into and out of Aspen ” emits about 10.9 tons of carbon dioxide over a 1,000 nautical-mile trip,” the city study said. “With eight passengers onboard, the Gulfstream will emit 2.45 pounds CO2 per passenger mile ” about equal, surprisingly, to the emissions performance of the ubiquitous Hummer H2 driven alone.”
It seems these high greenhouse-gas emissions are the price Aspen must pay for an economy based on tourism and second-home ownership. Any tourist destination will have a high carbon footprint because of the travel required for visits; Aspen’s carbon footprint is exacerbated especially by the intense use of private jets.
Although soaring fuel costs are biting into air travel and public concern about global warming is growing, it is doubtful that use of private aircraft by Aspen’s well-heeled second homeowners and visitors will decrease significantly.
Business barons from Fortune 500 companies typically don’t catch commercial flights into Aspen. They come via private jets filled with anywhere from one to 12 passengers.
The airport handled 37,500 arrivals and departures of private aircraft in 2004, the year that the city examined for its study. About 30,000 of those flights were by jet aircraft, and about 5.12 million gallons of fuel were dispensed at the airport for those thirsty birds. That is only the fuel required to get them to their destinations when they leave Aspen; it doesn’t include the fuel guzzled on the way into Aspen.
Runge said the new Gulfstream G-V is state of the art for efficiency. Nevertheless, it burns 500 to 600 gallons of fuel per hour, at least, during taxi and takeoff. Once it climbs to cruising altitude, its fuel efficiency improves to about 400 gallons per hour. When you do the math for one flight, he said, the bigger picture of fuel consumption and carbon emissions becomes much clearer.
“On an average three-hour trip, a G-V will burn 7,000 pounds of fuel and travel approximately 1,500 miles,” Runge said. “Thus, the airplane burns a little over a thousand gallons on the trip and travels 1,500 miles, for a 1.5-mile per gallon fuel efficiency.”
The performance on shorter trips likely is worse, he said, and most older jets don’t do that well.
It would be economic disaster, as well as illegal, for Pitkin County government, which operates the airport, to discriminate among aircraft based on fuel efficiency. It cannot, for example, allow only commercial flights and prohibit private flights.
“Obviously we don’t want to kill air travel, but we do want to address (carbon emissions) in our community,” said Kim Peterson, the city of Aspen’s global warming manager.
That’s the dilemma. Many Aspen residents and public officials pride themselves on the town’s environmental ethic. But it appears there is little that the town can do to tackle its number one contributor to climate change.
“The city has no jurisdictional control over the airport whatsoever,” Peterson said. And Pitkin County’s influence is limited, she said.
The Federal Aviation Administration dictates airport operations, and thus far, the agency hasn’t stepped in to address carbon emissions by aviation or delegated that power to airport operators.
That hasn’t stopped the Pitkin County airport staff from taking steps to learn more about its carbon footprint. After the Canary Initiative study was released, the county hired consultants to research the facility’s carbon footprint in greater detail.
An inventory of sources of carbon emissions was completed this spring and presented to the county commissioners in June. Now comes the tough part ” trying to figure out how to reduce those emissions.
“I think we have an obligation to try,” said Jim Elwood, director of aviation.
One of the consultants, Mary Vigilante, president of Synergy Consultants Inc. of Seattle, said the Aspen airport is on the leading edge of airports studying their carbon emissions. Only a handful of other airports have probed their greenhouse gas emissions.
“Big airports usually lead with these types of studies,” she said. “It’s the first small, non-hub airport that I’m aware of that’s done one.”
The airport study used different methods than the Canary Initiative to determine carbon emissions, so the results cannot be directly compared. The Canary Initiative study tried to account for all travel by commercial and private aviation passengers, both to Aspen and back to their point of origin.
The airport study said that would result in “double-dipping” in the bigger picture. That method would assign emissions to both Aspen and the airport of origination.
The airport study used fuel dispensed at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport as its key factor. “Research has shown that there is a direct link between fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions,” the airport study said. “Therefore, sources that require power/fuel at an airport typically are reflected in a pollutant emissions inventory and are the principal focus of a greenhouse gas inventory.”
As a result of the different methods, the airport study determined that the carbon emissions produced by the facility were significantly lower than what the city’s study had said. (The Canary Initiative study said commercial and private air travel produced 344,487 tons of carbon dioxide in 2004. The airport study said aircraft produced 54,931 tons of carbon dioxide in 2006.)
The airport study concluded that 97.4 percent of the facility’s greenhouse gas emissions came from sources that the county cannot control, like the arrivals and departures of commercial and private aircraft.
Only 2.6 percent of emissions came from sources that the county can directly influence. That includes 2 percent from shuttle vehicles and rental car fleets and another 0.6 percent from airport support vehicles and fossil fuels burned at the facility’s buildings.
“We have direct control over a relatively small portion of the carbon footprint,” Elwood said.
The county is exploring steps to take, such as buying wind power from Holy Cross Energy, its electricity provider. Solar power could be incorporated into future remodels or reconstruction of its passenger terminal. The county might also invest in two micro-hydro power plants, taking advantage of water rights it co-owns.
It is looking into ways to work with car rental companies to “green” their fleets, Elwood said.
But making a dent in the majority of emissions is a daunting challenge, acknowledged Pitkin County Commissioner chairman Jack Hatfield.
The county policy is to operate in the most environmentally-friendly manner possible, Hatfield noted. “Obviously, the airport is in conflict with that.”
Vigilante, the consultant who helped with the airport study, agreed it will be difficult for the airport to reduce its carbon footprint in a significant way. “That is the million-dollar question,” she said.
Pitkin County and Aspen already have one of the most innovative programs in the country to deal with carbon emissions. The local building code set an energy budget for new residences. A home builder can exceed that budget, allowing them to install a snowmelt system in a driveway, for example, only by paying a special fee. The revenues collected from those fees are plowed into various energy-efficiency projects through the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE.
That program could be an effective model for the airport. A tax on aviation fuel sales, for example, could raise revenues for programs to offset the carbon emissions generated by air travel. Pitkin County already collects 12 cents on each gallon of jet fuel sold at the airport. So, some have asked, why not raise that tax or dedicate some of the existing tax to a carbon offset program?
The simple answer is, the FAA won’t allow it. The agency requires that all funds raised at the airport be used on site for operations or maintenance of airport facilities, explained Charles Erhard, manager of airport compliance in the FAA’s office of airports in Washington, D.C.
The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport could use its revenues to buy alternative energy for airport facilities, Erhard said. But it couldn’t use revenues raised at the airport to fund projects off the airport site, he said.
The rule was implemented in 1987 because airports were being eyed by governments across the country as revenue sources for various non-aviation projects, Erhard said.
There is one exception to the rule. Any revenue source, such as a sales tax on fuel, that was in place prior to 1987 can be used off premise, Erhard said.
He was unaware of any movement afoot by airport operators to change regulations or raise money for carbon offsets.
Absent of such changes, however, Pitkin County’s hands appear tied. Elwood said two developments on the horizon could reduce carbon emissions from aircraft operations. First, market forces demand more efficiency. High fuel prices have crippled many airlines and reduced private flights. The aviation industry will almost certainly be forced to respond with more fuel-efficient aircraft, Elwood said.
Second, an FAA reauthorization bill, currently stalled in Congress, would overhaul an air traffic control system that has been in place since the 1940s and is no longer effective, Elwood said. A proposed replacement system allows aircraft to make more direct routes on flights and follow procedures that would be more fuel-efficient, he said.
County commissioner Hatfield summed up where the county stands at this point.
“It seems [that we can] do nothing or close the airport,” Hatfield said. “We’re not going to close the airport.”