To the Editor: Killer carbon dioxide, menacing methane

Michael Darmody
Average citizen
Letters to the Editor

Re: Daily Times, Letters to the Editor by Kirtland Mayor Mark Duncan and Kirtland resident Jeffery Peace in response to Aztec mayor Victor Snover’s original August 1 commentary.

Question: Is carbon dioxide a poison or pollutant?

Answer: No.

Question: So, it’s harmless, right?

Answer: No, it can still kill you.

Question: Is methane better?

Answer: No, much worse.

Both Mark Duncan, Mayor of Kirtland, in his Aug. 8, 2018 editorial response to a previous one published in the Times by Aztec Mayor Victor Snover, and Jeffrey Peace, a resident of Kirtland, in his Aug. 15 letter, seek to correct what they see as Mayor Snover’s misconceptions concerning the “health risk” associated with methane gas emissions. The problem is that both of their answers mislead the reader when they parrot the standard carbon industry subterfuge that “methane gas is not harmful to your health.”

This game is played by carbon industry representatives regarding both carbon dioxide and methane, making a lot of noise denying that either of them is a poison or a pollutant, as if that is what environmentalists claim. 

It is true that carbon dioxide, in and of itself, is not harmful. Normal atmospheric air consists of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and less than 1% carbon dioxide. We breathe it in and out of our bodies every day. In fact, as a result of oxidation, we ourselves produce CO2. 

Nevertheless, if we cannot exhale the carbon dioxide we produce, or if it can’t be removed from our blood, we suffer from respiratory failure – and we die. Or, if the percentage of the air we breathe in contains more than 6 percent CO2, it acts like an anesthetic, knocking us out, then we suffocate and, again, die. So, carbon dioxide kills.

Climate scientists do not label carbon dioxide a poison or a pollutant. What they point out is that CO2 absorbs heat. More specifically, CO2 in the atmosphere absorbs heat rising up from the ground, heat that originally came from the sun, effectively trapping it in the lower atmosphere. Usually this is a good thing, contributing to healthy plant life. But because of carbon industry-related activity — factory smoke, car exhaust, etc. — over the last 100 years, thousands of times more carbon dioxide than ever has been produced as a by-product of combustion and so is present in ever greater quantities in the lower atmosphere.

The unintended consequences are that more and more heat rising from the surface gets trapped here, to the point where it starts to raise the average ambient temperature. If the planet’s average surface temperature gets too high — and it only takes a few degrees — we die. We are seeing its effects already. Because of Global Warming the poles are melting, seas are rising, weather is less predictable, wildfires and droughts are more frequent and intense, etc., etc., etc. 

Again, just like in our breathing, it’s not that carbon dioxide is bad for us, it’s that too much of a good thing is bad.

This development has been measured and verified by thousands of scientists, government agencies and universities, all over the world, not just by American ones, not just by NOAA and NASA. Even energy corporations admit this is real.  

Now, about that methane. Just like CO2, CH4 methane is neither a poison nor a pollutant. We humans, as well as cows, produce methane gas. I suppose the smell is the most telling aspect of its presence. There are amusing YouTube videos purporting to demonstrate cow flatulence bombs as well as gassy gentlemen lighting fires between their legs.

What’s not amusing is that, again just like carbon dioxide, we can suffocate from too much methane. And, in relatively small concentrations - 5% or so - it can explode and/or burn. Some very unfunny YouTube videos show the blue methane flames of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano. So, methane also kills. 

More to the point, CH4 is 30 times more heat absorbent than CO2. Methane gas in the atmosphere is also more concentrated. Which means that methane can do 30 times more damage to the atmosphere than CO2 can. Given enough methane gas, then, our planet will suffocate or cook. 

On the other hand, it disperses more easily than CO2 and its presence in the atmosphere does not approach that of carbon dioxide. Which may be why the discovery by NASA of the so-called Four Corners Methane Hot Spot is so notable. NASA believes that oil and gas production are primarily responsible for this phenomenon (not cows, as one former Farmington mayor once famously declared, as if we even come close to Iowa’s bovine population). It also cites natural coal seam and coalmine seepage as possible sources. 

If all the wells were plugged and all the seeps were sealed the Hot Spot may well vanish. That may be unrealistic. But, whether the Methane Cloud is manmade or not, concentrations this high are not good for us. We have to do something about it. I’m not convinced that the flaring issue is that compelling. I think preventing waste and recovering money from public land fees is a weak argument for doing the right thing.

For carbon industry advocates to argue that jobs are more important than health, or that it’s “Carbon Economy or Bust!”, are the ravings of a methane head. Those power plants, the ones that employ so many hardworking people, are also responsible for San Juan County having the highest childhood respiratory illness rate in the state of New Mexico. Is it really worth the sacrifice? One might as well argue for the benefits of being the leading employer in the asbestos blanket or lead pewter dinnerware industry. 

Concerned citizens and political leaders are faced with a choice. One is literally a dead end, the other is possibly a new beginning. In my opinion, one need only look overhead to find a solution.

Michael Darmody is a Farmington resident.