Aspen and the End of Snow
Credit: Photograph by Erik Johansson

It is Auden Schendler's conviction that in order for Aspen to inspire a global energy revolution, it can't only tout its successes but must be honest about its failures. He was well prepared for failure. What he wasn't prepared for was the way in which Aspen recently has failed – a failure so spectacular that it threatened to undo all the good work of the past decade. In the past two years, Aspen's environmentalists have set an example for the world, and it's not a positive one. "Enviros are fighting other enviros," Schendler tells me. "We're eating ourselves alive." The internecine crisis has become so bitter that in Washington political circles, the Aspen Idea has been replaced by a new term: the Aspen Problem.

Like all Western problems, Aspen's comes down to water. For Aspen to rid itself of coal-fired energy – in order to fulfill the Canary Initiative's promise and increase its 75 percent share of renewable energy to 100 percent – the city determined that it needed to build a new hydroelectric plant. There was an obvious location: the bank of Castle Creek, where one of the city's original hydroelectric plants had stood for more than 100 years. Schendler was among the plan's most aggressive boosters. The city hired ecological consultants to study the proposal, write environmental impact statements, and develop regulations to ensure that the plant would not harm the health of the creek. In a 2007 referendum, more than 70 percent of the town voted to fund the construction of the hydro plant. But four years later, after a $1.5 million turbine had been purchased and 4,000 feet of penstock laid in the ground, a group of local residents and companies filed a lawsuit to halt the project. Among the complainants were several landowners with multimillion-dollar properties that abutted or drew water from Castle Creek. One of them, cloaked by four limited-liability companies that he controlled, was Bill Koch – younger brother to Charles and twin to David, who have donated more than $100 million to libertarian groups and organizations that promote global warming denial. Bill, though a pauper in comparison to his brothers, has an estimated net worth of $3.8 billion. He is the founder and president of energy conglomerate Oxbow Carbon, which operates a coal mine in nearby Somerset. "There are a lot of obstacles to renewables in this town that are not apparent to the naked eye," Mick Ireland tells me.

Opponents of the plant argued that the city had lost some of its water rights to the creek, and that the hydro project would cost taxpayers too much. But their most effective strategy was to appeal to the anxieties of the city's environmentalists. They claimed that the plant, despite the assurances of ecological consultants hired by the city, would threaten the survival of the creek. Fliers showing images of dry streambeds and polluted water appeared in every Aspen mailbox. "It's Not Green to Kill a Stream," they read. "Aspen's Water-gate." The ads were paid for by anonymous shell organizations like the Aspen Citizens Committee and Friends of Castle and Maroon Creeks, registered in Denver and Colorado Springs.

At Lance Armstrong's 40th birthday party, held in Aspen two years ago, Mayor Ireland was confronted by a heavy-set stranger with round wire-rim glasses and a jaunty wave of white hair. The stranger – hearty, bluff, red-faced – grabbed Ireland "like a football player" and shook him.

"You're a liar!" he shouted in Ireland's face. "I'm not building a pipeline!"

Extricating himself as gently as possible, Ireland concluded two things. One: The man was Bill Koch. Two: Koch was planning to build a pipeline from Castle Creek to his properties on the other side of the Elk Mountains – the Somerset coal mine and an Old West town that Koch is building for his personal amusement.

"Bill Koch spent huge amounts of money fighting the city's water rights," Ireland said when asked of Koch's motives. "He's not going to invest huge amounts of money without a purpose." (A spokesperson from Koch's company denies this, calling Ireland's pipeline claims "absurd" and a "total fabrication.")

Western water law, which has not changed greatly in the past two centuries, can be distilled to two core principles. "First in time, first in right" means that the first person to draw from a body of water has priority over later claims. "Use it or lose it" is just as self-explanatory; should a claimant not draw the water allotted to him, he forfeits his rights. Koch has several legal claims on Castle Creek, but his claims rank lower than those of the city of Aspen, some of which predate Koch's by more than a century. It is Ireland's theory that Koch, by thwarting the hydro plant, hopes to build a stronger legal case that the city, by failing to exercise fully its water rights, deserves to lose its claim. In theory this could allow Koch to drain a greater share of the water from Castle Creek. (Koch, meanwhile, has publicly stated that he would never divert water from the creek.)

Two years ago, a petition supported by Koch collected enough signatures to require a new referendum on the hydro plant. In the last election, voters expressed their disapproval by a margin of 110 votes. Though the referendum was nonbinding – the plant had already been authorized – the city suspended its plans. The opposition, largely through anonymous fundraising, spent more than $300,000 on ads and mailings; supporters barely raised five figures. "It wasn't a fair fight," says Ireland, still rueful today. "Aspen could have been the first city in America to run entirely on renewable energy." He shakes his head. "All you have to do is go rent Chinatown."

In his fight against the hydro plant, Koch had unlikely allies. A number of Aspen's old environmental guard – conservationists who have fought to protect the region's streams, open spaces, and forests – were concerned enough to demand additional analysis of the plant's impact on the creek. A rift opened in Aspen's environmental movement between, as one hydro supporter put it, the "Rachel Carson, Silent Spring–type" and the newer generation of activist, personified by Auden Schendler, who argues that every creek will dry up if radical measures aren't taken to curb the warming of the atmosphere. "Look, nobody wants to be against Auden Schendler," says Chelsea Congdon Brundige, the stream conservationist. "He's the environmental playboy." But she points out that the stream will assume greater importance in the local ecosystem as the weather gets warmer, which is a reason to protect it vigilantly. Besides, adds Brundige, Aspen's quest to ban coal-fired power is largely symbolic; it will have no impact on global weather patterns.

"It's an odd debate in many ways," says William Dolan, the city's utilities specialist. "Both sides could describe themselves as extremely environmentally conscious, and they'd be right." The hydro-plant project has been Dolan's focus since he began his job two years ago, after having received a master's degree in water science, policy, and management from Oxford. "The vast majority of people on the other side of the issue had pure intentions," he says. "Whether their concerns are founded in reality is another question."

Schendler takes a different lesson from the failed fight over the hydro plant – a lesson with ramifications that extend beyond Aspen, and even beyond the American West. "If we want to solve climate change, we have to break some stuff," he says. "We're going to fracture alliances. We're going to have to start doing some difficult things. And those things are going to hurt."

This is how Schendler justifies his most daring gambit yet. Recently he has entered into a partnership that is as uneasy as it is unlikely – with Bill Koch.

After 10 years of entreaties, Schendler and his partners finally managed to arrange a meeting with Oxbow Carbon to discuss the possibility of capturing the methane vented by their Somerset coal mine. The law requires mines to vent methane gas in order to protect their workers and prevent explosions. That methane rises into the atmosphere, where it traps radiation 21 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide. But methane can also generate energy, and Schendler favored outfitting the mine with a methane-capturing system. That methane would generate as much energy as Skico needed each year for all its properties. And by capturing the methane, it would eliminate three times the carbon pollution created by Skico each year.

"Wait," said the mine's representative, holding up his palm. "We don't believe methane is a pollutant. We don't believe coal is, either. We think burning coal is good for society."

Schendler paused. What could he possibly say to win these men over? "Why did you take this meeting?" he asked finally. "I'm a resource guy," said the mine rep. "I hate to see resources wasted."

The methane-capturing plant opened in November 2012. At the grand opening, Schendler posed for pictures with Oxbow executives. Mick Ireland was not in attendance. It was one of Koch's conditions that Ireland not be invited.

"We have the ability in Aspen to reach the world," says Schendler. "The downside is that there's a temptation to think we're the center of the universe, and we're not. We're a bubble. Lose that awareness and you're doomed. We've fucked up. Don't get me wrong. But if we don't lead, who will?"

We are halfway up Fanny Hill, the beginner ski slope at the base of Snowmass Mountain. At the side of the trail, a small shack is loudly humming. Behind the shack lies a pool of turquoise water, a retention pond for snowmelt; it is filled by a pipe that drains water from West Brush Creek some 800 feet farther up the mountain. During the winter this water is used to make snow. About 10 years ago, Schendler realized that the snow-making system, one of Skico's largest energy consumers, could itself be used to generate electricity. For $200,000, Skico built the powerhouse and installed within it a 115-kilowatt turbine. This micro-hydroelectric plant now generates approximately $15,000 worth of energy each year, enough to power 15 homes year-round. But the plant's long-term financial benefits mean little to Schendler. Nor do the energy savings, which, in the broader scheme of things, are infinitesimal.

"None of that matters," says Schendler. "But this matters." He points to a sign on the side of the powerhouse. It explains what the Fanny Hill plant does and promotes its environmental benefits. A diagram shows how the turbine, with the help of a Pelton wheel, a waterwheel invented by a gold miner, turns water into energy.

"Seven hundred thousand people ski down this hill each winter," says Schendler. Some of them, he figures, will take a break at this point on the slope, or fall down, and read the sign. Some of those people, just maybe, will be encouraged to finance hydroelectric plants of their own – or more ambitious projects.

But nobody was looking at the informational sign now, because it was summer and there was no snow on the ground, only grass and rocks. In the stillness of the afternoon, it was difficult to imagine what the slope looked like when it was covered with snow and thousands of young skiers practicing their snowplows and J turns. But it was easy to remember that before long, the slope will be snowless year-round. Then nobody will have the chance to read the sign except, perhaps, the occasional hiker, trying to escape the heat of the valley.