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Snow Bowl takes on global warming

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By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — If any athletes have a reason to fear the effects of climate change, skiers certainly do. In a sport that depends entirely on cold weather and snow, rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels across the globe pose a formidable threat. 

That’s why Middlebury College is hitting the slopes with its newest initiative to fight global warming. Beginning this ski season, the college’s Snow Bowl ski facility, as well as the college’s Alpine and Nordic ski teams, will be entirely carbon neutral. 

“The long-term effects of climate change will effect us all,” Snow Bowl Manager Peter Mackey said, “but those of us who love skiing, and want it to continue at this latitude, have an extra reason to start acting now.”

To achieve carbon neutrality, the college purchased $7,138 worth of carbon offsets to compensate for a total of 679.9 tons of carbon dioxide emissions for the ski area’s 2006-2007 operations. The college bought the offsets from Charlotte-based NativeEnergy, a privately held renewable energy company that helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions by funding Native American-owned and -operated wind turbine farms and family-owned farm methane projects.

The project began with three Middlebury College Alpine racers, Clayton Reed, Skip Heise and Joey Swensson. In an environmental economics class taught by Associate Professor of Economics Jon Isham last spring, the trio examined the need for economic reasoning and environmental analysis in environmental policy design. On their own time, Reed, Heise and Swensson took their studies to the Snow Bowl, investigating its carbon footprint and determining what it would take for the facility to go green.

“It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around the idea of carbon neutrality,” Reed said. “But when you make people aware of what they’re emitting by making it into a cost, it becomes more viable.”

Recent Middlebury College graduate Thomas Hand, a former ski patroller at the Snow Bowl who now works for NativeEnergy, did just that for Snow Bowl officials, determining just how much carbon dioxide the facility would release this season, including the consumption of electricity, diesel, propane and gasoline. He also calculated the approximate emissions from customer transportation to and from the mountain, based on an average number of skiers throughout the season and the average distance they travel. 

According to Mackey, offsetting electricity, which is the focus of many larger resorts touting green power, makes up less than 10 percent of Middlebury’s total emissions. It is the burning of diesel fuel, which is used in snowmaking compressors, snow caps, bucket loaders and tractors, he said, that comprises the Snow Bowl’s largest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.

With the purchase of offsets, the college has invested in the expansion of two renewable energy projects, The Rosebud Sioux Tribe St. Francis Wind Farm located near the town of St. Francis on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and the Penn England Farm Methane Project on the Penn England family-owned dairy farm in Williamsburg, Penn.

While carbon offsets are a practical way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions externally when an institution cannot feasibly alter certain energy uses, students and officials agree they are a temporary solution.

“The hope is that enough people take on carbon offsets that there is no way to make the exchange neutral anymore,” Nordic Ski Coach Andrew Gardner said. “Then the only thing left for people to do is change their own energy uses.”

But the college’s ski teams are thinking beyond the offsets, taking the college-run shuttle up to the mountain, driving as a team only when they have to. “We’re creating a greater intentionality in the teams,” Gardner said, “trying to make every decision a conscientious one.”

In addition to purchasing their own offsets, which compensate mostly for commercial airline travel, the teams have investigated the effects on the environment of the many vendors they use. This year, when the time came to buy new jackets, they chose Patagonia as their supplier because of the company’s longstanding commitment to environmental activism.

“Working with NativeEnergy to make the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and our ski teams carbon neutral reinforces the college’s longstanding commitment to the environment both academically and in terms of institutional operations,” Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz said in a college press release. “The fact that the project was initiated by a diligent group of students in an academic class further underlines the importance of fostering and empowering the ideas of the next generation.”

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