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The Ski Resort and the Coal Burner


Evidence of “Smog Lake City” in the distance. (photograph Dave Cox)

The ski and outdoor industries come down on dirty power.

by Patrick Doyle

When Squaw Valley installed electric vehicle charging stations back in 2013, the resort ran into an immediate problem: The electricity it received from its provider, Liberty Utilities, was dirty, generated in part by the burning of Rocky Mountain coal at the North Valmy Generation Station, a hulking power plant in northern Nevada. North Valmy, according to the Sierra Club, spews the equivalent of 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, a figure equal to the annual emissions of nearly half a million cars. It is the single largest greenhouse-gas emitter in the state of Nevada. Although well meaning, by choosing to power electric cars off that soiled wattage, Squaw would only be perpetuating climate change.*

Around this time, Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters, reached out to Squaw CEO Andy Wirth. A California-based nonprofit started by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones, POW has built powerful allies in the snowsports community by combating climate change, an enormous threat to the ski industry. After a handful of conversations on the best way to tackle the energy problem, POW and the Squaw executive team approached Liberty Utilities with a simple, yet powerful argument: We are some of your largest customers—running ski lifts and resort operations, after all, takes a good chunk of power—but coal and climate change are killing our industry. Can you find a cleaner source of energy to use instead?

Liberty Utilities was surprisingly open to the conversation. Nudged along by the ski industry partners as well as the Sierra Club of California and Nevada, Liberty announced in April 2015 that it was ending its contract with North Valmy. What’s more, Liberty proposed to build two solar plants near Hawthorne, Nevada, to boost its renewable portfolio.

That’s right. By simply applying pressure, the Tahoe ski industry helped convince a utility company that it was in their best interests to stop using coal and to build a solar energy plant. It was an example of the leverage that skiers and riders have when they join together, a fact that the industry has woken up to over the past five years. A few states away in Colorado, Aspen Skiing Company actually partnered with a coal mine to capture methane formerly flared off as a by-product to create energy, while Utah resorts and gear companies are pushing their conservative governor to adopt statewide policies supporting renewable power. All the players are backed by POW, which has extensive experience in fighting climate change. According to Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), it’s all part of an organic shift in how the ski industry is approaching the problem. While it once merely stormed the halls of Washington preaching the doom and gloom message of global warming, now it’s taking action.

When Jones started Protect Our Winters back in 2007, he ran into a problem: Companies and resorts were hesitant to associate with the organization. While pro-environmental corporations like The North Face and Patagonia signed up, many others worried about alienating customers. Call it the outdoors corollary to Michael Jordan’s famous—possibly apocryphal—refusal to engage in politics during his career because, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” As Jones puts it: “Companies are afraid of pissing off half the country that votes against the environment.”

No surprise, POW’s first trips to D.C. were hit-and-miss, especially when talking with conservatives. POW ambassador and Olympian Gretchen Bleiler could go to Capitol Hill, flash her silver medal, and discuss how the snowpack in Aspen was dwindling, but the Republicans weren’t swayed. “All they’d talk about is the economy,” says Bleiler. “Even if we accepted climate change science, they’d ask, why should we spend money on renewable energy if it’s going to cost the United States tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars?”

So Jones and Steinkamp changed course. They partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to commission University of New Hampshire researchers to examine the snowsports industry’s monetary weight. The results were astounding: 23 million Americans participated in winter sports like skiing and snowshoeing. The industry employed more than 211,900 people and had a $12.2 billion annual economic impact. And resorts were already feeling the impact of climate change, having lost more than $1 billion due to low-snowpack winters. It was a decade that, not coincidentally, contained some of the warmest years on record. Climate change, it was clear, wasn’t just threatening polar bears or ocean levels—it had already threatened the American economy and livelihood.

The numbers had an immediate impact on convincing others in the industry to join POW’s coalition. “For a long time, we would say, ‘Climate change is coming, and it’s going to impact your business,’” says Steinkamp, “and some of the resorts were indifferent. Now we just show them what’s at stake and they respond.” The NSAA’s Link says that’s because, “Focusing on solutions is not a divisive issue. If a ski area reduces its carbon footprint, that’s something everyone can get behind. And it not only improves the environment, but the bottom line.”

This economic argument has carried greater weight with politicians than one merely focused on environmental do-goodism. “Skiing is not just a leisure activity, it is an economic driver,” says Steinkamp. “With this research, we can go back to senators and say, ‘You have resorts and other winter industries in your state. When it doesn’t snow, this happens.’” Environmental activism is also something resorts can tout. “People ask, why are you taking this on?” says Andy Wirth of Squaw. “Frankly, it’s because we can and we have a voice. We like to think we can play a role in leading this change. It’s an expression of our values.” Other resorts have yet to mimic Squaw in scope, but in Utah, another coalition has formed, and it too has had positive impact.

Chris Steinkamp Protect Our Winters Chris Wellhausen

Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters. (photo Chris Wellhausen)

Way back in 1962, Utah started crowing about having the Greatest Snow on Earth, a happy coincidence of geography that ends up dumping powder on the resorts to the east and south of Salt Lake City. Lately, though, pollution has taken an ugly toll on the area. In February of last year, POWDER magazine dubbed the state’s capitol “Smog Lake City,” thanks to the persistent orange cloud of car exhaust and coal derived pollution hanging over the city. Despite a largely tourism-based economy, Utah’s conservative political establishment tends to look askance at environment-minded legislation, and has dragged its feet on regulating the coal industry.

That’s when outdoor-minded Utahns, tired of the inaction, stepped up. In October, pro skier Angel Collinson, Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf, POW, and the Sierra Club delivered a petition with more than 30,000 signatures asking the Environmental Protection Agency to take action against the state’s dirty coal plants. “Utahns deserve the same protections from damaging coal pollution that other states afford to their residents,” Metcalf wrote. In mid-December, the EPA requested public comment on two proposals to deal with the haze problem: a federal plan that would require the installation of pollution controls on coal plants, and a state plan that would not require those controls. A final decision is expected sometime in 2016.

It’s not the only step that the Utah industry has taken: In 2013, a coalition of ski resorts, local governments, environmental groups, transportation officials, and the recreating public formed the Mountain Accord to discuss land swaps for conservation, as well as cutting traffic and car emissions by utilizing buses and light rails. In August, the group signed its first agreement detailing what some of those plans might look like, including resorts swapping hillside land (giving up the ability to expand resort trails) for federal land in the valley, which will allow them to develop their base areas. Specific plans for trains are yet to be determined.

The biggest indicator of change, though, might be the Beehive State’s response to the federal Clean Power Plan, finalized by the EPA this past August. The CPP regulations are intended to boost renewable energy and cut back on fossil fuels by setting mandatory targets: By 2030, the United States must reduce emissions 32 percent below our 2005 rate. Under the plan, each state was given a target—Utah must drop its emissions by 37 percent—but could decide how it would reach it.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert, a conservative Republican who has expressed skepticism about climate change science, was less than eager to submit to the EPA regulations. In fact, Utah announced it would join 23 other states in suing the feds to avoid implementing a plan. The Clean Power Plan looked doomed in Utah—and then POW and the ski industry stepped in.

Professional skiers and Utah residents Caroline Gleich and Julian Carr published editorials in Utah newspapers, arguing for the adoption of the Clean Power Plan. Joining them were Black Diamond’s Metcalf and Alta President Onno Wieringa. Together, they noted that Utah’s ski industry generated an annual $1.2 billion and employed more than 18,400 people. Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the state’s trade association, wrote, “Warming at [current levels] means economic ruin for the skiing industry.”

Those numbers, as well as the high-profile lobbying, caught the attention of Governor Herbert. And while Utah hasn’t dropped its suit against the EPA yet, Herbert directed his environmental department to begin drafting a compliance plan. “That was a bit of a win,” says Steinkamp, who helped coordinate the campaign. “We helped turn a governor that wasn’t convinced to agreeing to comply,” and scored another win for the ski industry against the global warming fight.

The year 2015 may end up being a turning point against climate change, due to the United Nations agreement signed in Paris in mid-December. Nearly 200 countries, including the United States, agreed to cut emissions, with the eventual goal of keeping the world’s rise in temperature to two degrees Celsius. While even the negotiators acknowledge that the agreement doesn’t go far enough, it’s an enormous step in the right direction. Before the talks commenced, POW, along with NSAA and the Snowsports Industries of America, sent a letter to President Obama supporting an agreement. Pro skier Brody Leven and Bleiler, meanwhile, travelled to Paris for the talks to voice the snowsports perspective.

On the local level, Squaw has continued to lead the fight against coal in Tahoe and Nevada. They’ve recently assembled a coalition of partners including Tesla, Apple, and Patagonia to encourage North Valmy to switch to solar energy. In addition to lobbying the plant’s owners, NV Energy, they’re taking the case to Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and the state’s legislature. Replacing a 522-megawatt coal plant with more environmentally friendly energy production would drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and pollutants released into the atmosphere and be a victory in the fight against climate change. “This is positive, professional advocacy,” says Squaw’s Wirth. “We are working with NV Energy to help them move from one of the most arcane grids to one of the most progressive grids in North America.”

POW continues to push for politicians to support the Clean Power Plan. In mid-October, they met with New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who was under pressure from her party to oppose the EPA action. Two days later, she became the first Republican senator to publicly announce her support; her statement made her economic rationale clear: “It’s so important that we protect New Hampshire’s beautiful environment for our economy and for our future.”

Next up: POW is turning its focus toward the 2016 election. “Someone told me that in the 2012 election, more than 15 million outdoor enthusiasts didn’t vote,” says Steinkamp. “How can we change that number? We can’t endorse candidates, but we can say, ‘If you really care about climate change and doing something for the environment, one of the most effective things you can do is cast your ballot. If we continue to put these people in positions of power who deny climate change, it is nobody’s fault but ours.’”


Last May, paddlers in Seattle gathered to protest Shell’s Arctic oil-drilling fleet. (photo by John S. Lewis/Backbone Campaign)

Critical Mass
Skiers aren’t the only ones fighting climate change

Paddle in Seattle

Climate Action: Last May, more than 200 kayakers and canoers enacted an on-water protest against a Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic oil-drilling fleet docked at the Port of Seattle. In September, Shell announced it would stop offshore drilling in Alaska for the “foreseeable future.”

Trout Unlimited & Pheasants Forever

Climate Action: Three hundred and twenty-five hunting, fishing, and outdoors groups, including the high-profile Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, publicly backed the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in 2014, noting that climate change is already endangering the $90 billion hunting and fishing industry.

National Wildlife Federation

Climate Action: The outdoors-loving folks at the NWF, the nation’s largest conservation nonprofit, have issued hugely influential studies looking at climate change’s impacts on mammals, birds, and fish—including the decline of moose and bighorn sheep populations—and encourage their members to advocate for clean energy.

Note: Parts of this story originally appeared in Squaw magazine. From Mountain’s Deep Winter 2016 issue.

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