11/20/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Colorado's Groundbreaking Climate Fix

There's a great line in the movie Fletch when Chevy Chase realizes that the lawman sent to help him is a corrupt sheriff. He says: "Oh, thanks God... the police." This line came to mind a few years ago as studies began to trickle in about methane leakage from natural gas drilling and transportation. Multiple studies showed that because of the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, even slight leakage in the supply chain means the fuel may be no better than coal in climate terms. And as such, gas is hardly the "bridge fuel" we'd hoped, more corrupt sheriff than savior.

While those studies have been disputed, and a recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund suggests far less leakage (at least from the best practitioners), the bottom line is both that we aren't quite certain how much methane is leaking, and that unless we can ensure it's a very low number, natural gas doesn't get us very far towards a climate solution.

I hope I won't be considered overly geeky by saying that this realization was devastating to me. It was like learning that Santa isn't real. Because absent gas as a lower carbon transition fuel to a renewables-based energy infrastructure, I didn't see how we'd get there.

And it's for the above reason that I was blown away when yesterday, Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper announced new draft air quality rules that target methane emissions. The regulations, already under attack by some environmentalists (God bless them) are actually groundbreaking. No state has ever seriously considered aggressive leak detection and repair (of if you prefer, the awesomely acronymed LDAR, pronounced El-Dar!) on natural gas infrastructure, but these rules do just that. And while this measure, if approved, won't get us to zero emissions, it's a key step in the right direction.

This announcement is the most important step in American climate policy since Obama announced his climate plan, because it creates a model for other states to follow while addressing a previously ignored problem. Importantly, Colorado's regulations acknowledge the benefits of natural gas to our economy, and also recognize the need to address harmful emissions. And they do so in a way that industry can support. In fact, representatives from gas drillers Noble, Anadarko and Encana all accompanied Hickenlooper to the press conference.

Look: It's certain that we have to move towards an almost entirely renewably powered and/or carbon sequestered economy by 2050 to avoid climate tipping points. At the same time, it's also certain that natural gas exploration and recovery isn't going away in the very short term. Colorado's rule represents an aggressive and meaningful leap forward on one of the most thorny challenges to the clean energy economy. Governor Hickenlooper, the gas businesses who supported the rule, the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped with the rule, and the hard working members of the Air Quality Control Commission deserve our praise and thanks.