Vail Global Energy Forum

An empty coal train returns to Wyoming's Powder River Basin for more cargo. Photo/Allen Best

An empty coal train returns to Wyoming’s Powder River Basin for more cargo. Photo/Allen Best

Vail-Stanford alliance continues

in second year with energy forum

by Allen Best

All the major conferences in Sun Valley, Aspen and Jackson Hole, the ones that draw reporters from New York and Washington, D.C. and maybe LA, are conducted in the sparkly days of summer.

The Vail Global Energy Forum aims to eventually achieve the same strong magnetism as a must-go event, but it is positioned in the soft spot of snow season, this year March 2-3. Last year, at the inaugural event, speakers had the choice of warm weather or ski season, and they opted for skiing as an add-on to the trip to Colorado.

Organized by documentary filmmaker Carl Colby, with the backing of Vail resident and donor Jay Precourt, the event has aspirations of someday becoming to energy what the mid-winter gathering at Davos, the Swiss enclave, has become to high finance.

The forum last year had an array of speakers from various sectors. Photo by Photo Zach Mahone/Vail Valley  Foundation.

The forum last year had an array of speakers from various sectors. Photo by Photo Zach Mahone/Vail Valley Foundation.

They have a strong partner, Stanford University, with Precourt as the essential link. A Stanford graduate, with a master’s degree in geology, Precourt profited handsomely in the world of fossil fuels during his career. “It was the place to be,” he told me when I interviewed him in September for a profile in Vail Valley Magazine. (See page 22 of the magazine, which can be viewed digitally at http://online.publicationprinters.com/launch.aspx?eid=f042ae28-d9e5-4676-9236-b16b42b43a5b.

With his financial success, he has endowed the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford and also the interdisciplinary Precourt Energy Efficiency Center.

Many energy conferences are strongly tilted in some direction. If the first session was a clear indicator, the Vail Global Energy Forum very much reflects Vail in general. It’s a place of moderate Republicans and more centrist Democrats. This is not a cheerleading session for solar retrofits. Coal folks would be welcome, but only if they admit that carbon is a problem. The science of global warming is accepted as compelling, even if solutions are less evident.

MIT's Ernest Moniz, an adviser to President Barack Obama, described the game-changing nature of natural gas at last year's forum. Photo Zach Mahone/Vail Valley Foundation.

MIT’s Ernest Moniz, an adviser to President Barack Obama, described the game-changing nature of natural gas at last year’s forum. Photo Zach Mahone/Vail Valley Foundation.

Last year’s session had a strong emphasis on the importance of the abundance of natural gas as a bridge. The financial community was deliberately invited to this table.

“More centered and more recognition of balanced solutions,” says Del Worley, general manager of Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative that serves Vail and Aspen.

The talks by George P. Schultz, who is now affiliated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford, set the tone for the sessions. He served in four cabinet-level positions in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, from Labor to State, and in the interim was an executive at Bechtel, the engineering firm. There is no doubt that carbon emissions are fouling the atmosphere, imperiling civilization, if left unchecked, he said. But he also etched a big picture in the challenges of solving the problems.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Photo Zach Mahone/Vail Valley  Foundation.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Photo Zach Mahone/Vail Valley Foundation.

Just a smattering of public policy figures were on the agenda, and they didn’t linger. Returning this year is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is trying to weave a course that addresses concerns about impacts of natural gas drilling while recognizing the opportunity the resource represents. He will be joined by former New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who was very active in energy affairs during his time in Congress. He will be speaking about “energy independence” in the context of the Rocky Mountain states.

For a full lineup of speakers and their topic areas, see: http://www.vvf.org/vvf/info/vailglobalenergyforum2.aspx

Does this conference have the potential to become a must-attend event for policy-makers in energy? The other major destination resorts have become important for discussions of policy and finances.

Consider the Allen & Co. gathering every July in Sun Valley, which draws 400 or so Fortune 500-types such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffet, the folks from Facebook, Google and all the rest. Discussions are off-limits to reporters, but so many big deals have been hatched at the conference that major news organizations still routinely send reporters to hang out at the event ropes.

Solar panels provide shade at a clean-tech office building in Fort Collins, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

Solar panels provide shade at a clean-tech office building in Fort Collins, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

Under the auspices of the Aspen Institute and Atlantic Magazine, Aspen in recent years has reemerged as a strong soup of thoughts, especially at the mid-summer Ideas Festival. The festival is heavily covered and recorded – as witnessed this past fall when CIA director David Petraeus tumbled after his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell was disclosed. She spoke about him at last summer’s Ideas Festival as part of her promotion of the book, “All In.”

Jackson Hole hosts a steady stream of conferences, but the most notable is the Federal Reserve’s Economy Policy Symposium in August. As the Associated Press noted in a dispatch last August, world financial markets shift their attention to Jackson Hole for the duration of the conference to hear what Ben Bernanke and other leading policy makers have to say.

How did this come to be at Jackson Hole?

“In a word, trout,” explains AP, before explaining that a key speaker wanted to snag a few trout, and Colorado’s warmer temperatures in August were inhospitable to trout.

Will snow produce success for the Vail Global Energy Forum the same way as trout did for Jackson Hole?

Jonathan Schechter, of the Charture institute in Jackson, says the Federal Reserve’s conference has little impact on the lives of those living there. The Aspen Institute, in contrast, has made great effort to integrate its programs in the Aspen community.

“Discussions are held here that have influence all over the world. There’s no doubt about that,” says Schechter. “But locally it goes by almost unnoticed. It would be completely overshadowed if Justin Timberlake were to show up in town.”

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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