A skier’s call to support the BLM’s draft plan for oil shale development
Each time I ski, it reminds me how lucky I am to live here. Our landscapes, weather and unique mountain communities provide an escape for visitors from around the world as well as for the people who are fortunate enough to live here.
Snow-based recreation is one of the biggest inputs into the Western economy. Snow sports in the United States are estimated to contribute $67 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supporting more than 600,000 jobs. There is little doubt that snow is one of our best-known and most precious economic resources.
Yet every year, our snowpack faces increasing threats, which impacts not only numerous popular recreational activities, but the jobs, communities and families supported by this industry.
One of the largest potential threats to the annual snowfall is taking shape in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, where the oil industry hopes to extract oil from oil shale formations in the region. It is an age-old effort that has racked up nearly 100 years of failed attempts, but companies remain determined to develop this elusive resource, and they currently have access to thousands of acres of public lands to experiment with.
The reason for our concern about proposed oil shale and tar sands development is simple: Development of these resources will require a large amount of water in the already arid West, and the energy that will be required for development will create significant greenhouse gas emissions.
From a water use perspective, it is estimated that large-scale commercial oil shale development could require up to 50 percent more water than the Denver metro area uses annually. Seven states in the West are already using nearly as much water as the Colorado River is capable of supplying.
And recent studies indicate that the snowpack that feeds the upper reaches of the Colorado will decrease 5 to 20 percent by 2050, due to changing temperatures. That means less water for farms, ranches, residential homes and businesses.
From a climate perspective, oil shale development could emit 23 to 73 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional fossil fuels, at a time when all of us in the winter sports community are concerned about changing temperatures and its affect on our industry and are coming together to fight it on many different levels. Adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing.
A 2008 study from the University of Colorado found that as the climate warms, ski areas may face shortened ski seasons and higher snowlines, or “elevations below which seasonal snowpack will not develop.” In the worst-case scenarios, ski areas may face bare base areas and winter rains, the authors of the study warned.
Climate change is severely threatening to those of us in the ski industry, and it will be costly to thousands of families who depend on the annual revenue that winter brings. And this isn’t just limited to mountain communities. Lack of snow has direct implications downstream, too.
We don’t really know yet if oil shale will create jobs, but we know it will create problems. It is important that we protect the jobs that depend on a consistent and profitable winter season. At the very least, we need more information and a greater assurance that oil companies – like other industries – can find more efficient ways to develop this resource.
That’s why the Bureau of Land Management is doing the right thing in its draft plan for oil shale and tar sands development released last month, which requires that companies calculate potential impacts to water and climate before commercial development can move forward.
When I join people from around the world at one of our amazing ski areas, I grow more and more protective of these experiences. This is our way of life, and I want to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities as we do.
Please join me by submitting comments on the draft BLM oil shale/tar sands plan and support a final plan that answers critical questions about the water and greenhouse gas impacts of oil shale before considering commercial development.
Chris Steinkamp is the executive director of Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit organization focused on uniting and mobilizing the winter sports community against climate change.
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