The Contradiction of Fossil Fuel-Powered Ski Resorts

By |2018-05-16T13:01:54-07:00May 14th, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on The Contradiction of Fossil Fuel-Powered Ski Resorts

Getting up a mountain on a ski lift requires the burning of fossil fuels at the majority of America’s ski resorts. Like all greenhouse gas emissions, this in turn contributes to climate change and will likely lead to less snowpack in mountainous regions. And so downhill skiing that is powered by fossil fuels is undermining itself, jeopardizing the ability of people to experience snow, let alone ski, in the future. Skiing (and snowboarding) with the help of fossil fuels is a contradiction for anyone who cares to connect the dots.

I have no delusions about the relative size of greenhouse gas (GHG) contributions from riding ski lifts; I realize that the impact is likely dwarfed by the GHG contribution of flying or driving or both to get to the ski resort, most of which are not located near urban centers and large airports. But my point is not just about the individual carbon footprint of a handful of rides up the lift. Instead it’s about a lifestyle, a certain orientation to the world in which the gratification of my pleasures takes a certain precedence over the consequences of my actions.

This, of course, isn’t limited to the case of lift-powered downhill skiing; it’s a conundrum that most of us face on a regular basis, and one that has occupied philosophers for centuries. But I think the drawbacks of this kind of short-term self-gratification orientation is particularly clear in this case. And the contradiction is put in even sharper relief when one considers that a large portion of the people participating in downhill skiing believe in climate change and support policies to curb it.

A similar point could be made about all sorts of recreation—even driving to a trailhead for a hike comes with an increased carbon footprint, and this is also undertaken by many people who care deeply about climate change. The difference in the case of skiing via fossil fuel-powered lifts is that GHG emissions are integral to the recreational activity itself (heli-skiing, getting dropped off in the backcountry by a helicopter to go skiing, is another matter, the absurdity of which should be obvious in this context). And there are other less obvious sources of emissions at ski resorts as well: groomers burn oil, and snowmaking requires electricity and often the additional pumping of water a significant distance uphill. These aren’t necessary for the activity like lifts are, but they are part of how resorts currently operate in order to maximize their profits. According to a February report from the winter sports climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters, 89% of U.S. ski areas utilize snowmaking.

So what might be done on the part of those of us who love downhill skiing or snowboarding but cringe at the idea of contributing to climate change through the decision to recreate in this way? One of the most powerful things you can do is to be intentional about what kinds of places you’re giving your business. There are ski resorts (though not many) that are strongly committed to being fossil fuel independent, or at least very close to it. Here are the ones I’ve come across.

  • Berkshire East (in Massachusetts, just south of the Vermont border) claims to be “the only ski area in the world to generate 100% of our electricity from onsite renewable energy.”
  • Wolf Creek (outside of Pagosa Springs, CO) claims to be 100% wind-powered year-round, purchasing wind power from off-site.
  • Stevens Pass (east of Seattle, WA) claims to “offset 100% of its energy use (from both propane and electricity) solely with renewable energy credits from … windpower.”
  • Whiteface Mountain (outside of Lake Placid, NY) claims to have powered operations with 100% renewable energy over the past two ski seasons, with a contract to continue to do so for the next three (though propane serves as the main heat source).
  • Squaw Valley–Alpine Meadows (in Lake Tahoe, CA) partnered with Liberty Utilities in 2017 and hopes to power its entire operation with 100% clean and renewable sources of energy beginning as early as December 2018.

A wind turbine at Berkshire East, where the ski resort generates 100% of its electricity from onsite renewable energy. Photo courtesy of Berkshire East

There may be others that match this kind of commitment, but when it comes to sustainability practices most resorts have much more modest commitments (not that those efforts aren’t admirable themselves). In a Times opinion piece titled The End of Snow from Feb. 7, 2014, Porter Fox writes, “Greening the ski industry is commendable, but it isn’t nearly enough. Nothing besides a national policy shift on how we create and consume energy will keep our mountains white in the winter—and slow global warming to a safe level.” While that may be true, we’ve taken not a small step but a giant leap backwards when it comes to fighting climate change on a national policy level in the time since Fox’s piece was written. In addition, this doesn’t address the contradiction of burning fossil fuels to ski on a personal level.

So, if you live near any of the resorts listed above or are equidistant from one of these and other options, choose them over others. You can also actively advocate for pushing other resorts in this direction. Protect Our Winters encourages recreationists to reduce their carbon footprint and support businesses that are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But neither POW nor anyone else connected to the ski industry, as far as I know, provides a centralized resource where you can locate resorts whose operations are powered by a substantial portion of renewable energy. Most “environmental” scorecards take into account much more than renewable energy, and rightly so. But given the centrality of this issue to the activity of lift-powered skiing, something like a descending order list of the percentage of power coming from renewable sources at different resorts would be helpful in informing decisions about where to ski, particularly for people who travel long distances to a resort. So, you could push for POW to provide such a resource.

There does exist an initiative from the Climate Reality Project called “I Am Pro Snow,” which includes a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2030 on the part of resorts and mountain towns. You could encourage your local town or resort to commit to this visionary goal. Additionally, there’s the option to “earn your turn” by using MICROspikes® or skins to get up the mountain and then skiing or boarding down, a movement growing in popularity in recent years. Many ski resorts now offer this alternative (sometimes before/after hours), and there’s also the possibility to skin and ski in the backcountry in many areas.

The end of a ski season seems like a good time to reflect on the question of what kind of recreation we want to be part of: The kind that demands easy gratification while ignoring the consequences, or something more deliberate that takes a wider view of what it means to recreate on land? After all, the word’s roots mean to create again, to revive. I think it’s time that we re-create how we recreate, in a way that revives not only our innermost selves, but also the biosphere upon which these activities so crucially depend.

Uphill access has become a popular activity at Arizona Snowbowl just north of Kahtoola headquarters in Flagstaff. Photo courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl