Mountain Town News: Whistler trades blows with major fossil fuel companies
December 25, 2018
Whistler trades blows with major fossil fuel companies
WHISTLER, B.C. — Whistler this fall set out to wag its finger about climate change. Now, fingers are wagging back, accusing the resort municipality of hypocrisy or at least of being politically tone-deaf.
The November letter that ignited the controversy was sent by the recently elected mayor, Jack Crompton, to about 20 oil and gas companies, accusing them of bearing disproportionate responsibility for the growing climate crisis.
"All levels of government, industry and individuals bear responsibility for solving and paying for climate impacts," said the letter sent to one of the firms, Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources. "However, we suggest that your company and industry bear a larger portion of the responsibility. Your industry is aware that its products have a negative impact on the climate, yet continues to develop new resources."
Whistler, said the letter, expects to see more rain during winter and less snow. Summers will become longer, hotter, and drier, with increased risk of forest fires. This year it spent $1.4 million in community wildfire protection, and such investments will continue for at least 40 years.
You owe us, the letter said.
This wasn't the first such letter sent to an oil and gas company. Vancouver-based West Coast Environmental Law persuaded 16 communities in British Columbia to write such letters to the world's
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20 largest fossil fuel companies, only of few of which are based in Canada.
Previously, for example, the mayor of Victoria sent a letter to Chevron asking the company to pay 3.34 percent of the city's climate-related costs going forward. "You cannot make billions of dollars selling your product, knowing that it is causing significant financial harm to communities around the world, and not expect to pay for at least some of that cost."
Many of the companies have acknowledged the link between greenhouse emissions and climate change, and most say they're trying to reduce emissions. But few can make as strong a claim as the Calgary-based firm that got Whistler's letter. The owner of Canadian Natural Resources has been a key investor in a project at Squamish, near Whistler, along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, that seeks to withdraw carbon dioxide from the air.
But there's another reason that this particular letter went viral and others sent by other jurisdictions did not. Calgary, where the company is based, is hurting, with a vacancy rate in its gleaming downtown office towers of 27 percent (compared to 15 percent in Denver). Some 350,000 people in the oil and gas sector in Alberta have lost their jobs as Alberta's more expensive oil/tar sands struggle to compete in a world market glutted from expanded oil production enabled by improved hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling techniques. Those techniques allowed the United States several weeks ago to become a net exporter for the first time in 75 years, the Wall Street Journal noted proudly on Saturday. Earlier this year, the United States became the world's No. 1 producer of oil.
But for Whistler to point the finger at a company in Calgary was seen by some as the height of hypocrisy. Columnists from Toronto to Vancouver pointed to the dependence of Whistler on mostly long-distance travelers to sustain its economy.
To buy carbon offsets to neutralize their carbon-based travel, air travelers from London flying in economy class would have to cough up $50, while those from Sydney, Australia, would have to pay $82.80, pointed out Daphne Bramham, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun. Flying first class quadruples the needed offsets.
Without singling out ski towns, the Economist made the same point in a Dec. 1 story. On average, each person going about their normal business produces the equivalent of five tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. But a single transatlantic roundtrip produces the equivalent of about one tonne per passenger even in economy class, the magazine noted in a story about efforts to reduce carbon emissions of air travel.
Whistler's letter caused several companies to cancel their participation in an investors' conference planned for Whistler in January. The energy component of that conference was subsequently cancelled.
In response, the Whistler mayor posted a video on Facebook that expressed a "sincere regret that anyone felt unwelcome here." Crompton also seemed to back away from the criticism of the oil and gas companies. Whistler as a community, he said, acknowledges "that we depend upon fossil fuels. We have a responsibility to respond to the climate change challenge ourselves and do it locally."
Whistler's Pique Newsmagazine sought an interview with the mayor, to clarify his position, but the mayor postponed the sit-down to Tuesday afternoon.
In her assessment of the controversy, Pique editor Clare Ogilvie faulted Whistler for not being sensitive to the distress of Calgary and Alberta altogether. But the errant tactic does not diminish the urgency of climate change, she said.
In her estimation, nobody looks very good. Fossil fuel companies have been aware of the impact to the environment of their product for close to 60 years, yet they have continued to expand while raking in huge profits.
But the tourism industry – including Whistler – can't clean up its act, either. She points to a 2018 study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change that found that tourism accounts for around 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Air travel was the primary culprit in this accounting.
"Do we not need to get our own house in order before we start demanding others do the same?" she asked. Whistler, she noted, can't seem to ban plastic bags, stop outside heaters and gas fires from being left on all the time, or get shop-keepers to close their doors in the middle of winter.
Therein lies the rub. If burning gas to heat the great outdoors in ski towns remains acceptable, how can how can oil and gas companies be persuaded to change the fundamental premise of their businesses?
All the while, the carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere continue to rise. In 2013, the concentration of CO2 surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history.
The NASA Global Climate Challenge website notes that this recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with the burning of fossil fuels and can be well accounted for based on the simple premise that about 60 percent of fossil-fuel emissions stay in the air.
Zinke's exit from Interior tied to real estate deal in ski town
WHITEFISH, Mont. — Ryan Zinke is leaving the cabinet of President Donald Trump, and The New York Times says that a real estate deal in a ski town figures into his departure.
Zinke, a former U.S. Navy seal, was Interior Secretary, in charge of the national parks and BLM lands, as well as other agencies, in the United States. He led Trump's efforts to allow more drilling on public lands and to down-size a national monument in Utah created during the Obama administration.
The most damaging allegation may involve the real estate deal involving Zinke's family in Whitefish, Mont., his hometown. Politico earlier this year wrote that David J. Lesar, the chairman of Halliburton, the giant energy services company, was lending financial support to a large hotel and shopping development in Whitefish. That project would make property owned by Zinke significantly more valuable. Zinke's wife had pledged in writing to allow the developer to build a parking lot that would help make the project possible.
"Because Halliburton is the nation's largest oil services company and Mr. Zinke regulates the oil industry on public land, the deal raises questions about conflict of interest," says the Times.
Could a tiny Colorado ski area be something bigger?
SILVERTON, Colo. — In the 1950s, while searching for where to build the ski area that he had dreamed about as a boy growing up in New England, Pete Seibert spent a summer as a hotel night clerk in Silverton, scouting potential locations by day.
Seibert found much to like about the ski terrain around Silverton, but concluded it was too remote to make his ski area work. Soon after a friend from Aspen introduced him to Vail Mountain. Seibert had trained during World War II at Camp Hale, just a few miles away, but somehow had not become familiar with that mountain. Within a few decades, Vail was doing 1.6 million skiers a season and, after an expansion in the late 20th century, had 5,289 acres (2,140 ha) and 33 lifts, for a time tops in North America.
Silverton has two ski areas, anyway. About 10 miles outside town, Silverton Mountain has terrain about as extreme as it gets. But on the edge of downtown, Kendall Mountain has 16 acres of terrain as mild as it gets, the perfect beginner ski area.
Kendall is what has Silverton officials at work, thinking it might become something bigger, more economically powerful and hence allow the community to become less dependent on summertime steam trains chugging into town from Durango. A wildfire last summer stopped those trains for several weeks.
On a good day, Kendall does 120 skiers. A study by ski industry consultant SE Group concluded that the ski area would need to do 1,000 skiers a day over a three- to four-month winter to justify the expansion to about 800 acres. That would put it somewhat on par with Wolf Creek and Monarch, two other Colorado ski areas, reports the Durango Telegraph.
Where will those skiers come from? That's the big question, and the market fundamentals have changed little since Pete Seibert was sniffing around the San Juans soon after World War II. It's many hours of driving from Denver, Albuquerque, and Phoenix. There are flights into Montrose, 90 minutes to the north across Red Mountain Pass. The highway there edges along a canyon scary enough to some that they choose wide detours.
On the other hand, Silverton is at 9,300 feet in elevation, high and cold. San Juan County is unique among Colorado's 64 counties in having zero tilled agricultural acres. Given what climate scientists say about warming temperatures, maybe that bodes well for an expanded Kendall Mountain. On the other hand, climate models tend to indicate more drought for southwestern Colorado. So cold enough, maybe, but snowy enough?
Snowmass Base Village gets across the finish line
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — Base Village, a 1.1-million square-foot real estate development at the base of the Snowmass ski area that was conceived 20 years ago, is finally a wrap.
The project gives the Aspen Skiing Co. substantial new lodging product comparable with the upper-scale hotels of Beaver Creek, Vail, and other newer and refurbished ski areas in the West. For Snowmass Village, the project allows it a shot at retaining more visitors. They'll inevitably go to Aspen to get wined and dined, but the new mass may persuade them to stay at Snowmass for at least an evening.
"We certainly see the Aspen experience as a cornerstone for us, but we now have the opportunity to build on the Snowmass Village experience as well," said Clint Kinney, the town manager of Snowmass Village.
The ski company has a similar view. Spokesman Jeff Hanle describes a critical mass that may cause people from Aspen to actually want to spend time in Snowmass for more than just skiing. It will become more of a stand-alone resort.
Snowmass is Aspen's money-machine mountain. The resort does roughly 750,000 skier days a year, more than the three other ski mountains nearby operated by the Aspen Skiing Co., including the original Aspen Mountain.
Aspen Skiing Co. took the first step toward achieving the vison in 1999 with purchase of 500 acres at the ski area base. Two years later, it partnered with Intrawest, the former ski company and real estate developer, to create the new real estate product. Snowmass Village voters in 2004 approved the project.
Construction started in 2005 but two years later Aspen Skiing Co. and Intrawest sold the project off to a different company, Related. For Related, it was terrible timing. Construction stopped in early 2009 just before the recession formally ended. Related dove into bankruptcy. Aspen Skiing Co. got the half-completed project back for $56.5 million. It had sold it to Related for $169 million.
In late 2016, Aspen Skiing announced a new partnership with KSL Capital Partners and East West Partners. A frantic 18-month construction schedule headed by Andy Gunion of East West finished the project for the 2018-2019 season.
The principal achievement before the recession hit was the Viceroy Hotel. Now also open for business as part of the just-wrapped project is a 99-room Limelight Hotel, the third of that name owned and operated by the Aspen Skiing Co. The other two are in Aspen and Ketchum, Idaho. The architectural motif for this new hotel, as with the others, is of "mountain materials and modern elements," says the Aspen Daily News.
The new hotel has a five-story rock-climbing wall and will be home to a new and members-only "Snowmass Mountain Club."
Aspen Skiing Co. has pumped more than $100 million into on-mountain improvements at Snowmass during the past 13 years. Among the latest investments was the $20 million Lost Forest adventure center. With this, Aspen Skiing hopes to make Snowmass livelier—and more profitable—on a year-round basis even as a warming climate nibbles at ski season.
Plans are underway for a significant remodel and expansion of the Snowmass Center, the town's other major base-area commercial node, reports The Aspen Times.
Both had key personnel participating in the revamp from Vail Resorts and its predecessor, Vail Associates. Harry Frampton was president and Mark Smith the chief marketing executive of Vail Associates in the early 1980s. In the mid to late 1980s, they developed the key real estate parcels at Beaver Creek before moving on to develop real estate in the Truckee-Tahoe area of California, Park City, and elsewhere, including Union Station in Denver. KSL Capital Partners is also headed by former Vail Resorts executives.
Montana ski area now has a chairlift unlike any other
BIG SKY, Mont. — Big Sky Resort now has a chairlift unlike any other, at least in the Western Hemisphere. The lift carries eight people with ergonomically shaped, extra-wide, heated seats, and a weather-proof bubble overhead. "There simply isn't another chair like it in North America," said Mike Unruh, vice president of mountain operations.