The View from Here

When a group of Socorroans — school-age children, their parents and numerous others — pensively, some prayerfully, rounded the Plaza several times early this spring, they were participating in the March for Our Lives, a call-to-action requested by the survivors of Parkland, Florida’s high school massacre. The nationwide commemoration of precious lives lost was also a firm demand for reason-guided reform of America’s firearm acquisition and possession laws.

This call for reform is not about a family’s nor an individual’s hunting or livestock management firearms, nor does it threaten one’s right to armed home defense. The Florida youths’ impassioned and well-informed demands solely address the heinous crimes of both the mass slaughter and individual murders of human beings via gunfire. As a side-benefit, suicides and accidental shootings among children are expected to plummet if key gun-control measures become the norm.

On average, 115,000 Americans have been shot with a firearm each year of the past decade. That’s over a million Americans, folks! Our children alone are eleven times more likely to die by gunfire than are all the kids in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and New Zealand combined! Right. So this is not about one of the earliest Amendments to our nation’s Constitution. It is about the utterly senseless annihilation of our offspring!

Precisely this madness destroyed two gorgeous teenagers at school in Aztec, NM, two weeks before Christmas. And it is absurdly chilling to realize that those two kids’ parents are 25 times more likely to also die by gunfire than are adults in the 17 civilized nations noted above. Worse, since Columbine, at least 187,000 U.S. students have experienced a school shooting. In 2016 alone, nearly 39,000 Americans were obscenely slain by firearms — the highest total we’ve reached in 23 years. So why are the past two-dozen years significant?

Reform Takes Hold

Late in 1993, the Brady Act was finally passed, establishing the federal background-check system. James Brady is the guy who was nearly assassinated alongside President Reagan in 1981. Although severely impaired, Brady, along with his wife, worked steadfastly to bring about the law’s passage, reforming how firearms are sold and obtained in the U.S. A modest estimate is that over three million unlawful gun sales had thus been prevented by 2015.

But who hasn’t heard of the Loophole? Unlicensed private sellers — these now include internet sites — are not required to run the background check. Fortunately, 19 states have closed the loophole through state law. Unfortunately, 31 have not. Yet, proof o’ the puddin’: those first 19 states experience 35 percent fewer gun deaths than the others.

And states with the most comprehensive gun sale controls and enforcement enjoy 53 percent fewer suicides, 52 percent less mass shootings, and 47 percent fewer women killed in domestic violence. Thus, it’s really no wonder that 94 percent of all gun owners favor background checks on all firearms sales. Still, 40 percent of American gun owners last year acquired their most recent firearm without having to clear “a check.” I doubt if they minded all that much. There are serious waiting period irregularities in some locales.

Also, the military services have been screwing things up. The Defense department Inspector General found that in 2015, “prohibited purchasers” — soldiers who’d been court-martialed or dishonorably discharged for overly-violent behavior and disruptive instability — were not entered into the nation’s background check database by either the Air Force or the Marines a third of the time. The Navy failed to file such information in one-quarter of the cases, while the Army fell down on the job 41 percent of the time.

As a result, 26 worshipers got whacked in a Texas church in November. The victims were 18 months to 77 years of age. The assassin, court-martialed and dishonorably discharged by the Air Force three years earlier, had just “passed background” and been allowed to purchase a Ruger assault weapon. (This, right after the state of Texas denied him a concealed-carry permit ‘cuz the young man was stark-raving mad.) We are all going numb.

Do you know that in wild-west Texas, it was illegal for civilians to carry pistols, openly or concealed, from 1871 until 1995? Considered ‘anti-social’, handguns were for troublemakers. Today, fully 78 percent of us simply don’t own a firearm for self-defense. In fact, only three percent of Americans own half of all guns in the U.S. Thus, I’m not convinced there’s no way out of this seemingly hopeless morass.

The math of methane

In a quiet but important victory this spring, Tom Udall guided a Senate subcommittee on Interior and the Environment to preserve the Obama-era Methane Reduction Rules — one of Barack’s last and possibly most significant actions. Despite a flailing assault on this critical, court-ordered emissions reduction by Trump and Interior secretary Ryan Zinke, wisdom won the

day.

We’ve known for over a decade that fueling the modern world on oil and coal must be forsaken. An urgent need to reduce the volume of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is acknowledged by most of humanity. Global economies hustle to make this desperate shift — using less gasoline, burning less coal, deploying renewables — and utilizing cleaner-burning natural gas.

Natural gas is primarily methane, invisible and odorless. When combusted, methane is rendered relatively harmless to the atmosphere. Yet, unburned methane is exponentially more ‘efficient’ than CO2 at trapping and holding heat above the Earth. (Until the tremendous increase in carbon emissions accompanying the Industrial Revolution, our planet had been able to simply release its surplus warmth into outer space.)

The Big Uh-oh

But (and this is a mighty big “but”), for the past five years, the realization has grown steadily — informed by U.S. researchers — that leaked, unburned methane is not merely 30 percent more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, as previously believed. Rather, new studies show methane is from 85 to 105 percent more potent a “heat-trapper” than carbon dioxide. And while the Paris Climate Accord was all about the noble goal of reducing atmospheric CO2, methane’s ‘new’ metrics change everything!

In other words, our math was way, way off. Meeting the relatively modest, doable (if arduous) Paris Accord goals will not save the globe’s temperate climate from modern, industrial man. As far as we now understand, only ending manmade methane leakage can afford us that one-chance-in-hell.

Invisible Clouds

In 2014, Cornell University scientists published the results of a study of newly observed phenomena: dense, expansive “methane clouds” forming over heavily “fracked” areas such as New Mexico’s Four Corners. Hydraulic fracturing has become the predominant means of extracting large quantities of natural gas in order to power the shift away from coal-burning.

Sadly, geologic fracturing, using subterranean explosions to free the gas, gives pressurized methane a million pathways to the surface, unavoidably venting the Earth’s most potent known greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Cornell researchers discovered, by sampling those “clouds” over fracked regions across the continent, that non-combusted methane pollution was increasing alarmingly over North America.

Our family spent Christmas 2015 in Los Angeles, engulfed in a methane cloud. An aging natural gas facility, atop the nation’s second largest methane reservoir, had “blown out” just north of the city two months earlier. We fell ill immediately upon arrival. I’m not exaggerating: all of L.A. seemed to have “the flu” for Christmas. Children in the evacuation zone near the blow-out suffered extreme nosebleeds; adults there had non-stop headaches. After twelve weeks of frantic effort, that leak was finally capped — but not before 100,000 metric tons of methane were lost into our planet’s atmosphere.

Estimates Askew

Unfortunately, the Cornell study implied that all of our projected rates of climate-warming had been wrong. The CO2 reductions mankind just promised at Paris were going to prove insufficient in the face of a newly-recognized, leaked-methane tsunami encircling the globe.

Yet scientific discoveries must be thoroughly vetted by peer review. And sure enough, early in 2016, Harvard scientists published an explosive paper. Analyzing ten years of satellite data, aerial flyovers and ground measurements, the Harvard team confirmed an enormous spike in atmospheric methane, emitting largely from oil and gas well-fields which are now almost exclusively fracked. The lead Cornell researcher shook his head and acknowledged, “Well, we’ve closed coal plants and opened methane leaks.”

For Paris, the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated a methane leakage rate of 1.4 percent. But actually, new measurement techniques employing infrared imaging during over-flights now indicate leak rates of eight to nine percent. Thus, roughly six times more heat-trapping methane is entering the atmosphere than previously believed. At fault is industry’s current extractive infrastructure — pipes, valves, joints, their seals and welds — impacted daily by the jolts of hydraulic fracturing. And as Harvard’s team leader wryly observed: “All wells leak.”

Chem & Curmudgeons

On top of the miscalculations, scientists realized that the actual chemistry of it all needed refiguring. Unlike carbon dioxide, the methane molecule breaks down over a period of a decade or so. Thus, projections comparing methane’s potency to CO2, which breaks down over a span of 100 years, were all askew. The greenhouse effect is there alright, but with methane, it’s jam-packed into the front-end, time-wise. Like now! The weather’s getting ‘way too warm and chaotic NOW! — so much sooner than we’d been warned to expect.

The new understanding is that each molecule of methane contributing to smothering the Earth’s cooling mechanism, does so during its first decade of release, while the heat-trapping havoc wreaked by a CO2 molecule is strung out over a century.

In June, the Albuquerque Journal reported that leaked and lost methane could power ten million American homes annually, were it not wasted. They revealed that 50 oil and gas companies cooperated with research institutions to take measurements at hundreds of well-pads in six basins of the country over the past five years. This study concluded that 13 million metric tons of methane are escaping yearly into the atmosphere from the U.S. alone – 60 percent more than the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated.

Yet without a strong Methane Rule greatly reducing fracked leakage, companies will continue to vent “several centuries’ supply” of natural gas into the atmosphere. Stanching this lethal hemorrhage is humanity’s next humongous climate challenge. Will we rise to the occasion? Interior secretary Zinke and his boss are hell-bent on destroying the industry-crimping Rule. And Zinke, no friend of the Earth’s, has filed suit to kill it for a fourth time.

Sources: Albuquerque Journal, EarthJustice, Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords PAC, The Nation, Rio Grande Sierra Club, Weekly Alibi