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Ski Industry Response to Global Warming
Summer 2007
ABA Natural Resources & Environment



by Lisa A. Kirschner

While the debate over the economics of and impacts related to global warming is everywhere, there is one industrial sector particularly "feeling the heat." The ski and snowboard industry is fundamentally threatened by the projected warming trends; the industry is, therefore, taking global climate change seriously and meaningfully participating in the effort to better understand and effectively respond to the corresponding issues. The following provides a brief overview of how the snow sport industry is trying to assess and manage climate change risk in an increasingly public forum.

Aspen Skiing Company filed an amicus brief in support of the Petitioners in Massachusetts v. EPA, i.e., the greenhouse gas case recently decided by the United States Supreme Court. The Aspen brief provides insight on the ski and snowboard industry's perception of the climate change issue. The brief cites an immediate threat to Aspen's business and heralds the need for federal regulation to safeguard the Rocky Mountain ski areas (and the Colorado tourism industry in general) from rising temperatures and the corresponding shrinking snow pack. According to the brief, the effects of climate change are already being experienced at Aspen as evidenced by the past 25 years of climate data depicting: a total precipitation decrease of 6 percent; a snowfall decrease of 16 percent; and an average temperature increase of approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit. The concerns raised by the Aspen brief are emblematic of those being raised throughout the industry. Whereas the ski and snowboard industry has often been cited for its environmental impacts including those related to tourism-induced traffic pollution, urban sprawl into formerly undeveloped mountainous regions, and the clearing of habitats for ski lifts and runs, the industry is beginning to take the environmental offensive with a particular focus on controlling the production of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has been working on its "Sustainable Slopes Program" since 2000 intended, in part, to raise the industry's environmental awareness. In 2006, NSAA updated its Environmental Charter to include a specific reference to a Climate Change Policy. NSAA Sustainable Slopes Annual Report (July 2006) at I (available at <http://www.nsaa.org/nsaa/environment/sustainable_slopes/SustainableSlopes-Annual-Report-2006.pdf)>. The Climate Change Policy encourages action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at ski areas and has, in turn, been translated into specific programs. For example, the NSAA recommends that industry purchase wind power credits and other "green" energy sources, i.e., energy generated from renewable non-polluting sources including wind power, geothermal power, small scale hydro-power, solar power or bio-mass power. A number of resorts have taken serious measures to implement the NSAA policy.

In 2005, the Sierra ski resort, Sugar Bowl, reportedly became the first ski area to "offset" 100% of its electricity carbon emissions by purchasing renewable energy credits for wind power; the purchase constitutes approximately 4,272 mega-watt hours of electricity that is directed into the Northern California power grid. See <http://www.nsaa.org/nsaa/environment/the_greenroom/index.asp?mode=greenroom&mode2=full&caseid=882&topic=T07>.

Another project of the NSAA involves its partnership with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) in the "Keep Winter Cool" Campaign. The partnership (and the associated campaign) are intended to raise the visibility and public understanding of global warming and to spotlight potential solutions. See<http://keepwintercool.org/>.

The collaboration promotes the sale of renewable energy certificates, referred to as Green tags, characterized as power produced from renewable energy products. The partnership has also joined with other businesses to promote investment in wind power.

U.S. ski resorts are not alone in their efforts to raise public awareness. Since tourism in the European Alps generates an estimated 50 billion (Eur) annually and provides approximately 10% of the region's jobs, potential climate-related impacts to winter recreation are taken seriously. The European ski and snowboard industry, through the organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, recently released a report entitled Climate Change in the European Alps (referred to as the "OECD Report"). See Climate Change in the European Alps (2007) (referenced at OECD website <http://www.oecd.org/document/45/0,2340,en_2649_34361_37819437_1_1_1_1,00.html>). The OECD Report is evidence of the perceived global threat to the industry; it recognizes that the Alps are "particular sensitive to climate change" and estimates that recent warming in the region has been three times the global average. OECD Report at 11.

According to the OECD Report, the winter tourism industry can and is responding to the changing climatic conditions through such adaptive measures as: landscaping techniques to maintain snow (and minimize threshold amounts required to open slopes), use of white plastic sheets to limit glacial melt, diversification of tourism revenues, movement of ski areas to higher elevations and northern facing slopes, and increased reliance on enhanced snowmaking techniques. These measures are, of course, not permanent solutions. For example, the OECD Report acknowledges that snowmaking costs (and water consumption demands) will increase non-linearly with temperature increases and, at some point, will not be viable. OECD Report at 46. Similarly, it recognizes that insurance can be useful to protect against occasional low snow winters (e.g., Vail Resort's purported collection of $13.9 million in snow insurance during a low snow year in the late 90s), but will not be a feasible option for systematic longer-term warming trends.

The recommendations in the OECD Report may have application to areas outside of the European Alps. Specifically, the Report calls for changes to regulatory policy to "facilitate sustainable adaptation" in winter tourism. According to the Report, disparate laws throughout the "Alpine" countries make resort management and response to climate change even more difficult. For example, European countries have differing requirements with respect to obtaining authorization for snowmaking. In some European countries, e.g., Switzerland, snowmaking is subject to an environmental impact assessment. In addition, snowmaking is only allowed provided it is still possible to ski on the slopes. These sorts of legal hurdles can preclude ski operators from relying on snowmaking to prolong their seasons. See OECD Report at 49. The Report suggests that regulatory policy must be adapted to help the industry negotiate the difficult times predicted.

Ski towns have also begun taking action against global warming. One such action is the "Canary Initiative" adopted by the City of Aspen in 2005 to begin reducing emissions contributing to global warming. The Canary Initiative was so named because the City of Aspen views itself, and other communities which are economically dependent on winter snow for recreation and summer snow pack for water supply, as the "canary in the coal mine" of global warming. The initiative identifies steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, inform the public about impacts from and solutions to global warming, and to advocate for action on a regional, state, and national level. See < http://www.canaryinitiative.com/>.

The Canary Action Plan (currently in draft) highlights a wide variety of measures aimed at directly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and emphasizes educating community leaders about the causes of and solutions to global warming. It lists six primary areas to be targeted for greenhouse gas reductions (government decision-making, transportation, buildings, electricity, landfill, and carbon offsets) and includes specific emission reduction targets. Under the plan, the City of Aspen will monitor the success of its efforts by monitoring greenhouse emission and preparing a progress report every two years regarding the City's progress in implementing the plan.

The going green trend in the ski industry has been characterized by some as a vast public relations initiative. On the other hand, industry representatives have recognized that there are real economic reasons to identify options for addressing the dire climate change predictions. In the meantime, the public has started to tune in; skiers and snowboarders throughout the world are part of a growing ground swell of vociferous demand for real action to ensure the survival of winter.


Lisa Kirschner is a shareholder at the Salt Lake City office of Parsons Behle & Latimer; she may be reached at lkirschner@parsonsbehle.com