Aspen Skiing Co. stays full speed ahead on climate change issues

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A drilling rig works on a gas well near Parachute. Aspen Skiing Co. is working for greater regulation of oil and gas drilling.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

Aspen Skiing Co. will maintain efforts to influence state and national policy on climate change in 2015 as well as reduce its own carbon footprint, but President and CEO Mike Kaplan said Skico’s aggressive stance isn’t a war on fossil fuels.

“We’re not fighting the industry. We’re trying to hold the industry accountable to best practices, and some of those best practices aren’t well-outlined yet,” Kaplan said.

Skico has become a leader in the ski industry on addressing climate change. The company’s 2014 Sustainability Report — a self-produced report card on its efforts to address climate change — features Skico’s activism to slow global warming and numerous events it held to build awareness of climate change.

“Aspen Skiing Co. staff have been to Washington, D.C., eight times since 2012 to lobby on climate or other issues, and we already have more trips planned,” the report said. The recapturing of the Senate by Republicans won’t deter Skico’s office. Kaplan said solutions must be sought by working with everyone.

“We need electricity to spin our lifts but we think there’s a way to do it that’s clean and sustainable and doesn’t rob the next generation of a livable planet.”
Mike Kaplan, Skico president and CEO

On the state level, Skico worked in 2013 to support Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposal to make Colorado the first state to regulate methane leakage from drilling operations.

Skico employees also have played a major role in the climate-change debate. The Environment Foundation, which is funded by Skico employees with matching funds from the company and other partners, contributed $150,000 since spring of 2013 to promote “responsible gas drilling,” the report said.

Critics occasionally take aim at Skico for taking aim at the oil-and-gas industry while operating a resort for international jet-setters. Private aircraft use, common among Aspen’s visitors and residents, is an intense contributor to greenhouse gases, which cause global warming.

In a recent broad-ranging interview with The Aspen Times, Kaplan addressed suggestions that the company is hypocritical. He said the “defeatist hypocrite argument is pointless.” Taken to its extreme, he said, any action by humans could be seen as hypocritical. The responsibility of humans is to offset their climate effects, he said.

“We need electricity to spin our lifts, but we think there’s a way to do it that’s clean and sustainable and doesn’t rob the next generation of a livable planet,” Kaplan said. “That’s our human responsibility.”

Skico put its money where its mouth was when it collaborated with partners to build a plant in 2013 that captures methane at the Elk Creek coal mine near Somerset and converts it to electricity. It produces about 2 million kilowatt-hours per month. The plant eliminates three times the carbon dioxide equivalent that would have been created from a utility company generating that power.

Skico is exploring additional methane projects.

“We think that is the sustainability story of the decade — kill carbon and generate a return on investment — because that’s something that can be modeled and implemented at scale, whether it’s by us or others,” Kaplan said.

Skico executives, through their activism, and Skico employees, through contributions to causes seeking greater regulation, want the oil-and-gas industry held to higher standards.

“When we cut a new trail on the mountain, we have to (revegetate) it. When you cut a road into the wilderness or wherever, you should be (revegetating) it,” Kaplan said, referring to the oil-and-gas industry. “When you’re driving that road, you should be doing dust mitigation. You should be looking for ways to minimize the footprint on the land.”

Kaplan said he recently flew in a small plane from Aspen to Salt Lake City. Drill pads pocked the land almost the entire way. Each drill pad had its own road cut. Kaplan said he wishes there were more incentive to make drillers consolidate the pads and roads. He is convinced that ground disturbance in eastern Utah and western Colorado is contributing to the airborne dust that typically lands in the mountains and coats the spring snowpack. Spring winds kick up the dust. Researchers say the dust absorbs the sun and results in quicker melting of snow.

Kaplan said oil and gas companies should be required to manage dust just as contractors are required to do on construction projects in Aspen, in Pitkin County and elsewhere. He said he isn’t against drilling as long as the impacts are addressed.

“I think that the oil-and-gas industry has to embrace the fact and realize that for a long time they haven’t had to pay the full cost of their operations and their externalities,” Kaplan said. “Primarily, the emission of carbon dioxide is a cost that they’ve been ignoring and assuming others would cover. It should be covered in the cost of energy.”