The ‘carbon footprint’ of The Aspen Times
The Aspen Times has poked fun at the city of Aspen for the flying saucer of a fire pit on the mall both for aesthetic reasons and for issues with overconsumption. Columnists and letter writers regularly discuss global warming, its causes and our local contributions to the problem.
But how does The Aspen Times stand up to its own scrutiny?
With the idea of putting our money where our mouth is, The Aspen Times tried to determine how much greenhouse gas our business pumps into the atmosphere, helping to cause climate change.
Calculating a carbon footprint isn’t easy. The first difficulty is in setting the boundaries. Do we include commuting workers? Do we include the carbon it takes to produce 1,897,245 pounds of newsprint per year? Should we count some percentage of our parent company’s headquarters in Reno, Nev.?
The second difficulty is in choosing a method for calculating carbon output and agreeing upon set standards. As part of its so-called Canary Initiative to combat global warming, the city of Aspen has devised a handy calculator that estimates carbon output and normalizes differences between, say, different energy utilities (see box).
The so-called “carbon footprint” of The Aspen Times includes the energy and natural gas we use in our main building and Gypsum printing plant, as well as the distribution of the newspaper.
“This whole thing is an estimate,” said Calla Ostrander, Canary Initiative facilitator, pointing out that activities like commercial air travel rely on big assumptions, like a full plane. “But it’s a pretty good estimate.”
If you buy energy from the city of Aspen, which draws most of its power from renewable sources, then the output of carbon is between three and four times less than buying from Xcel Energy, which relies mostly on coal-fired power. For transportation output, private jet travel is 40 times as damaging to the atmosphere as commercial jet travel, because private jets tend to carry fewer passengers.
We decided to calculate the carbon released from our water, electricity and gas usage at The Aspen Times building on Main Street and the printing plant in Gypsum, which prints five daily papers and 11 weeklies. (The Aspen Times accounts for 20 percent of the Gypsum plant’s output.) We added commuting employees to the equation and a rough estimate of air miles traveled for work. We also included the newspaper delivery truck that runs 365 days a year between Gypsum and Aspen.
The Aspen Times put out roughly 541.1 tons of CO2 emissions in 2006. That’s equivalent to driving around the world 38 and a half times in a Hummer H3; driving around the world 123 times in a Toyota Prius; or flying around the world 106 times on a full commercial flight.
The Aspen Times’ portion of the Gypsum printing plant’s carbon emissions far outweighed the emissions from the newspaper’s Main Street offices. Gypsum emitted 468.6 tons in 2006 and the Aspen office put out 72.5 tons.
One big difference between Gypsum and Aspen is where they get their energy. The Aspen office uses the City of Aspen’s electric utility, while Gypsum buys energy from Holy Cross ” a utility that, owing to its reliance on coal-fired power, emits three times the CO2 of the Aspen utility.
A significant contribution to Gypsum’s total is the truck that delivers newspapers to Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. We estimated the vehicle uses 456 gallons per month for deliveries; that’s 130 miles round trip, plus 20 miles in side trips to box drop-offs, all at 10 miles per gallon.
The truck’s total carbon contribution is 53.6 tons, nearly double the output of the Times’ commuting staff members (26.1 tons).
The Aspen Times commuter emissions are reduced significantly by the paper’s stock of subsidized employee housing, which accommodates roughly 30 percent of the staff (11 units). Several employees work from home, and the Times recently began subsidizing bus passes for employees who ride the bus.
A handful of Times employees drive their cars virtually everywhere they go, but many more of them walk, carpool or take the bus to work. A few, such as photographers, drive often during their workday, but most generally stay put. We came up with a rough estimate of 205 gallons of gas per month.
Air travel is uncommon for Times employees. We estimated only 2,222 air-miles flown each month.
That still makes transportation ” 33.7 tons ” nearly half of Times office’s yearly emissions.
Of course, like everyone else in Aspen, winter heating bills take a monetary and environmental toll. In August, we used 28 CCFs (100 cubic feet) of gas and in January we used 648 CCFs of gas. Heating our building accounts for 19.8 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.
So what does this mean? Is The Aspen Times a huge polluter? Do we pollute more than your average small-town newspaper?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Each business that tries to estimate its carbon footprint will differ in the exact parameters they measure, making for apples-to-oranges comparisons. In other words, we can only really compare ourselves to ourselves, from year to year.
Ostrander said that the carbon calculator is better used as a tool for individuals and small companies than as a comparison tool between companies. Few companies in Aspen have gone through the emissions-calculation process and those few have included different factors.
“You can get as detailed as you want,” Ostrander said. “So you can accurately track your progress.”
Thus, a newspaper or a city government can look at total emissions and set a realistic goal for reductions.
The Aspen Times is already ahead of the game on numerous fronts. From providing employee housing to buying bus passes for commuting workers, the newspaper is doing some things right. However, there is clearly room for improvement.
The Times’ building on Main Street was built in the late 1800s and updated over the years with a tangle of additions. While funky and charming to some, the building is an energy sink, full of holes, seams and poorly insulated walls that release warm air in the winter.
The owners of The Aspen Times are considering a major remodel or replacement for the building within the next five years. The big impediments to a new structure are money, a deep emotional attachment to the historic building and a complex city land-use approval process.
Given the potential for a new or overhauled office in the near future, Publisher Jenna Weatherred hesitates to put too much money into the current building.
An environmental engineering company was hired a few years ago to look at City Hall, which was built around the same time as our building, with the idea of recommending energy-efficient changes.
“The town is so, so bad in terms of thermal comfort and energy efficiency,” said August Hasz, principal engineer of the firm. “They are unwilling to relocate their offices. It’s kind of what they have to do. Theirs is one of the most complicated, multilayered systems I’ve ever seen. They need a frame overhaul.”
We can only assume our building is worse than City Hall. As publisher Weatherred put it when talking about insulation, energy-efficient appliances and heavy windows, “I’m sure we’ve just gone with the cheapest option.”
However, a major factor in those decisions has been the expectation of a new building. Weatherred said the company will be willing to invest in efficiency measures that will only pay off in 15 to 20 years.
“We’re not going anywhere. The Aspen Times is here to stay,” she said. “The long payback time is OK.”
Still, every investment in energy efficiency must be weighed against the bottom line, and only some ideas will make fiscal sense.
“I’m responsible to the owners of this newspaper, and we need to make fiscally responsible decisions as well as environmentally responsible decisions,” Weatherred said.
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