Aspen ski workers taking on Big Oil |

Aspen ski workers taking on Big Oil

ASPEN ” A foundation funded by Aspen Skiing Co. employees on Tuesday jumped into the bitter battle between environmentalists and the oil industry over drilling for natural gas in western Colorado’s Roan Plateau.

The Environment Foundation announced that it awarded two grants directly tied to the Roan battle and two others indirectly connected. The four grants totaled $34,302, according to Matt Hamilton, executive director of the Environment Foundation.

“We’re not anti-drilling. We’re for smart drilling,” he said. The foundation’s board of directors felt it needed to join the effort to save “the last special places worth protecting in their entirety. The Roan is one of them.”

Greg Schnacke, president and CEO of Golden, Colo.-based Americans for American Energy, said the Skico workers’ foundation and a lot of other players in the Roan Plateau debate “don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Opponents of drilling for natural gas in western Colorado don’t make the connection that the gas that warms many of their homes and businesses comes from western Garfield County. Drilling foes want warm houses as long as the drilling doesn’t occur in their backyard, he said.

One of the grants awarded by the Environment Foundation may help fund a lawsuit environmentalists are pondering over the Roan Plateau. Western Resource Advocates was given an $11,802 grant to fund legal work “to limit or eliminate drilling atop the Roan Plateau,” Hamilton said. Another environmental organization gave a similar-sized grant to fund the legal work, he said.

Colorado Mountain Club was awarded $5,000 to develop an economic analysis of the impact of drilling on the Roan. The Mountain Club has worked for years to rally citizens and governments of the Western Slope against drilling on 52,000 acres of public lands on Roan Plateau, an area west of Rifle that towers over the Colorado River Valley.

The Environment Foundation also granted $10,000 to Western Colorado Congress to educate residents of towns in western Garfield County about the health impacts of gas drilling. A documentary filmmaker was granted $7,500 to help production of her work, called Split Estate, which shows health impacts from drilling in western Colorado.

Hamilton said this grant cycle wasn’t the first time the Environment Foundation funded efforts related to natural gas drilling. Western Colorado Congress, for example, has received $56,000 over the last seven or eight years, he noted.

But this was the highest concentration of dollars thrown into the fray. The foundation’s board members felt a sense of urgency about the Roan Plateau because the area’s fate could be settled this year, Hamilton said.

Schnacke said the Environment Foundation’s expenditures made no sense. It is funding groups that have goals that run counter to the Aspen Skiing Co.’s business interests, he claimed.

Schnacke previously charged that Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland and the town were hypocrites by opposing drilling on Roan Plateau while the town’s mansions suck down significantly higher amounts of energy than average U.S. homes.

On Tuesday, Schnacke also accused Skico employees of hypocrisy. The company relies on destination skiers, many of whom arrive for their vacation on private jets then stay in highly consumptive residences. Opposing energy production makes little sense for an area that depends so heavily on energy consumption, he said.

Schnacke challenged Environment Foundation members to read the Roan Plateau drilling plan, which he labeled one of the most environmentally responsible plans ever crafted for drilling in public lands. Surface disturbance will be limited to a few hundred acres among the 80 square miles, he said.

“I just don’t understand the skiing company’s point,” Schnacke said.

Hamilton defended the Environment Foundation’s direction. Its members love the outdoors, he said, and the organization has a 10-year history of protecting the environment. Its position is consistent on the Roan Plateau because it wants to make sure drilling is undertaken in the most responsible way, he said.

Hamilton stressed that the foundation is independent of the Aspen Skiing Co.

The Environment Foundation gave 13 organizations $100,000 in grants this cycle, a record amount. It also gave $70,000 in spring 2007. The largest individual grant also was awarded this cycle. Environment Colorado’s Research and Policy Center was given $20,000 to promote a state Climate Action Plan proposed by Gov. Bill Ritter.

The Environment Foundation is funded through voluntary contributions from Skico employees and supported by the Aspen Skiing Co. Family Fund and the Aspen Community Foundation.

In the decade since it was formed, the Environment Foundation has given $1.12 million to 233 environmental projects and causes.

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