Aspen Skiing Company’s Auden Schendler powers new inroads for climate change.
This past October, Aspen Skiing Company VP of Sustainability Auden Schendler made his way to Washington, D.C., as part of a delegation representing the nonprofit Protect Our Winters. The group included Schendler; mountaineer Conrad Anker of The North Face; X Games gold medalist Gretchen Bleiler; mountaineer Chris Davenport; and executives from Burton, Black Diamond and K2, among others.
Their goal was to convince members of Congress to act on the climate crisis and support—or at least not oppose—President Obama’s plan to use the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions (methane, black carbon and ozone) for new and existing coal plants.
But when Schendler knocked on the District’s door, no one was home.
In what Schendler describes as a blessing and a curse, his trip to the District was perfectly timed with the 2013 government shutdown. There would be no speeches before the House or the Senate, no fact-focused presentations that took months to prepare. Still, that didn’t stop him from being heard.
“We ended up having more meetings with lawmakers than we’d had on any past visits,” explains Schendler, of sit-downs with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski, (R-Alaska), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.); Sen. Michael Bennett’s (D-Colo.) Chief of Staff Jonathan Davidson; and Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.).
“About 40 percent of CO2 emission comes from coal plants,” Schendler explains. “If we aggressively control these three short-term climate pollutants that are very intense, we can buy time to deal with CO2 and also improve climate health globally. The proposed Obama legislation is meaningful, and it’s the only thing on the table. This is what’s for dinner. We want to move this forward.”
Policy and advocacy are no small part of Schendler’s role at SkiCo. Both are now cornerstones of his position. When Schendler moved from the Rocky Mountain Institute to SkiCo in 1999, some snickered he’d be overseeing recycling bins at the base of Aspen Mountain, not turning into an environmental-policy wonk on behalf of SkiCo. But today, all SkiCo strategies, from marketing to finance, are made through a sustainability lens focused by Schendler and Sustainability Director Matt Hamilton. It is at the core of what and who SkiCo is.
Nevertheless, environmental advocacy without muscle is just rhetoric. So while other American companies and ski resorts have been talking a big green game, SkiCo was taking serious action backed with financial support by the Crown family, owners of Aspen Skiing Company.
“We got tired of feeling like we were dinking around the edges of the [climate change] problem,” Schendler says. “If we are going to do stuff, it ought to be big.”
In what has become Aspen Skiing Company’s largest environmental project to date, Schendler asked SkiCo to be the primary funders of a project that would be the first of its kind west of the Mississippi, [and] one of the largest, making a significant impact in greenhouse gas emissions. The pitch: to spend nearly $6 million on a coal-mine-methane-to-
“Here, I am making this completely outlandish proposition; in any context, it seems preposterous,” concedes Schendler. “But,” he adds, “They understood it immediately… and green-lit it over a chicken lunch.”
In November 2012, SkiCo unveiled a 3-kilowatt waste-to-energy power plant, located at the Elk Creek Coal Mine, near Aspen in Somerset, Colo., owned by Bill Koch’s Oxbow Mining. “What’s important to understand,” explains Schendler, “is that with climate change we hear a lot about CO2, but methane is a wildly more potent greenhouse gas. It’s like CO2 on steroids. There’s not as much conversation among the lay public on methane. So if you care about climate change, it is far more effective to go after and deal with these superpotent greenhouse gases.”
The EPA reports coal mines emit about 10 percent of methane nationally, and 6 percent worldwide, into the atmosphere.
Today, methane gas at the Elk Creek power plant is captured and piped into an 18-cylinder engine, then burned to produce electricity. That electricity is fed into the Holy Cross electric grid, enabling the Elk Creek Coal Mine power plant to produce enough electricity for 2,000 homes—or the entire annual operations of Aspen Skiing Company, including four ski mountains, three hotels and 17 restaurants. The plant will prevent emissions of about 96,500 metric tons of CO2 annually over the next 15 years.
“The irony is that methane is the same gas we are fracking for. Why wouldn’t you capture this? You’d get a free source of energy, and you’d prevent the emission of this superpotent greenhouse gas,” says Schendler. Yet, the adoption of power plants fueled by capturing methane at coal mining facilities is not an easy sell to mine owners.
“There’s really no reason to say ‘yes,’” Schendler says. “Coal mines make their money from coal. They don’t need or want another ancillary project that will be a distraction. They don’t want to screw around with safety or have other people jacking around on the property. It’s complicated; it’s difficult; and right now, it’s not particularly profitable [at a 12 percent return].”
But Oxbow Mining was uniquely suited to a project like this, says Mike Ludlow, Oxbow’s executive vice president. With the mines already fitted with a methane pipe, some of the toxic gas was already being recycled for heat, while the rest, the natural gas, was released into the air.
“Mr. Koch has a close handle on everything that goes on at Oxbow, and he’s been supportive of the project since the beginning,” says Ludlow. “[This project] fit in well with our sustainability mission. We were able to team up with Aspen and create a unique resource to utilize the mine to its full potential.”
While SkiCo was the plant’s main funder with a $5.4 million investment, Schendler stresses the project succeeded through a partnership of people, nonprofit organizations, legislators and private businesses. The late environmental champion Randy Udall worked for eight years with energy developer Tom Vessels in its conception; SkiCo’s finance department, led by Todd Richman and Matt Jones, worked for a year on the financials; Holy Cross agreed to buy the energy at a good rate; and, at the end of the day, Jim Cooper, president of Oxbow at the time, and owner Koch, had the foresight to agree to the undertaking.
“This kind of project gets us a foot in the door into a bipartisan conversation,” Schendler says. “We are partnered with, in some sense, the opposition. You wouldn’t think someone concerned about climate change would be partnered with a coal mine, but this is how we can work together.”
Schendler also notes that while the environmental benefits motivates SkiCo to invest, the endeavor also presents a very real-world business opportunity. Should Schendler successfully sway those in Washington, D.C., to push forward emission regulations, chances are, we will see more projects like this from SkiCo.
“It’s business diversification,” adds Schendler, “so we are not entirely dependent on skiing and hotels. The EPA is completely aware of the problem with methane gas, and they track it minutely, but in five years, it will be different. We can make electricity for homes, schools, businesses and, in the process, possibly spark a new American industry.”