Greening of Aspen’s X games isn’t black and white issue
January 29, 2016
The Winter X Games in Aspen creates a huge carbon footprint from converting 65 million gallons of water into snow, whisking thousands of athletes and spectators into the Roaring Fork Valley by jet and car, and three days of bright lights and frenetic action.
Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler doesn't deny it's an intensive event by an intensive industry. But Skico laid plans it felt would more than offset the X Games' contribution to climate change.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy was scheduled to visit the venue this morning — first checking out the superpipe that is the signature symbol of the event near the base of Buttermilk, then dropping by the athletes' lounge.
McCarthy also was scheduled to make a presentation at Basalt High School this morning. She delivered the keynote address Thursday at SnowSports Industries America's big Snow Show conference for ski-industry manufacturers and retailers in Denver.
“This is how you leverage the X Games for bigger scale change rather than operational greening.”Auden Schendler, Skico Vice President of Sustainability
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"It was a rousing call to action," Schendler said.
Alas, the best laid plans vaporized Thursday evening. McCarthy was called back to Washington, D.C., to address developments in the Flint, Michigan, water-supply crisis, Schendler said. She vowed to make up the cancellation for Basalt High School, he said.
At the X Games, McCarthy planned to share the latest information about the EPA's campaign to curb carbon emissions with athletes who go to bat for Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit organization comprised of people in the winter-sports industry working for policy chance on climate.
Those athletes, in turn, planned to share McCarthy's message with thousands if not tens of thousands of followers.
"She will meet with some of the most influential and social media-savvy athletes in the world, and they'll be sharing the message," said Schendler, a member of Protect Our Winters' board of directors. "This is how you leverage the X Games for bigger scale change rather than operational greening."
The message can still be shared, but it lost the luster of the EPA Administrator's visit.
Snowmaking is big
Schendler is well aware that critics feel the company's policy translates into "do as we say, not as we do." He doesn't buy it.
Skico has acknowledged the criticism and virtually every other business creates a large carbon footprint simply from being in business. Skico has never said to shut down the lifts to reduce carbon, he said.
The ski industry is a major power consumer, he said.
"The X Games has a huge environmental impact. Every piece of commerce has an impact," he said.
The footprint of the Winter X Games is stamped deep in snow — as in snowmaking. While the foundation of the superpipe is dirt, millions of gallons of water are needed for the man-made snow to cover the centerpiece feature of the games and the surrounding base area. There are numerous other features ranging from the snowmobile course at Panda Peak to the terrain park further upslope.
Skico wouldn't make nearly that much snow if not for the X Games, Schendler said. It already constructs an Olympic-quality superpipe at Snowmass, its flagship ski area. It wouldn't build another at the 'Milk if it didn't host the X Games.
"Greening" the operations
While Skico is focused on policy change and converting troops to the environmental cause, ESPN is greening its games. The company hired Denver sustainability firm Arell Logic to oversee recycling, composting and other sustainable practices. Company owner Lindsay Arell helped the Colorado Convention Center in Denver achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification, a recognition of sustainable practices.
Arell declined an opportunity to talk to The Aspen Times about greening the X Games, deferring to ESPN. An ESPN spokesman provided general answers about the plans.
"For more than a decade, X Games has made efforts and remains committed to minimizing our event's environmental impact," the company statement said. "Our waste minimization and diversion efforts are where we've put the most focus over the years, but we continue to look towards additional steps and to evolve our program."
X Games will follow the procedures that have become standard for modern, large-scale gatherings. All waste stations will have recycling and composting sections.
"The X Games Green Team can be found at high traffic stations for questions," ESPN said.
One innovative step is to donate excess building materials to Aspen-area organizations and extra supplies and items no longer in use to LIFT UP.
Pushing the message
Schendler said the X Games are run as efficiently as possible, but there's still an impact.
"We use a lot of water and we use a lot of energy. That's just the way it is," he said.
The games are a vital part of Skico's strategy to keep the upper valley's ski economy viable, he noted, and therefore, the carbon emissions from the event seem worth the tradeoff.
The key to the event for Skico, according to Schendler, is making the effort to harness the star power of the international athletes in the glaring lights of Aspen's X Games to spread the message about climate change. He would "feel bad" if the effort wasn't being made, he said.
"We're pushing that message out hugely," Schendler said.