08/04/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Curbing Methane Emissions Needs to Be the Law of the Land

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Earlier this week, the White House held the last in a series of roundtable discussions on reducing methane emissions across the United States. I was one of five environmental leaders invited to attend, alongside industry and labor heads, regulators, and policymakers. President Obama's foresight in calling together this diverse group of stakeholders to discuss what will be a cornerstone of his Climate Action Plan speaks to the urgency of this issue and the danger that methane poses to the health of our communities and our climate.

Carbon dioxide has long held center stage as the guilty greenhouse gas contributing most to our changing climate. In recent years, however, its prominence has shifted as research has shown that methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas - with up to 34 times the heat-trapping impact as CO2 over 100 years.

Even as our understanding of the staggering power of methane to alter our climate has developed, our appetite for natural gas - which is primarily methane - has soared. While touted as a clean alternative to carbon-intensive coal and oil, our natural gas leaks methane at every step of its production and distribution, from the wellheads in the fields to the burner tips in our homes. A report published by Conservation Law Foundation in 2012 found that Massachusetts has lost more gas each year through old, leaky pipes than the state saved through its nation-leading energy-efficiency programs.

Those leaky pipes are not only bad for the environment - they're bad for our health, our economy, and, ultimately, the safety of our communities.

The safety and environmental dangers - and huge economic losses - of methane emissions from natural gas pipelines make this one of the most urgent issues of our time - and one that affects every resident and community across the United States.

But here's the good news. Not only do we know there's a problem, but the key stakeholders with the power and will to do something about it largely agree that urgent action is needed - including President Obama and his administration. At this week's White House roundtable discussion, the group of 30 stakeholders represented diverse interests, and our discussion was far-ranging, but there was broad support on one point: that methane emissions must be brought under control.

The outcomes of our discussion will ultimately be rolled into President Obama's Climate Action Plan, including a Department of Energy initiative to establish efficiency standards for compressors and to create voluntary guidelines for industry, aimed at fixing and replacing aged infrastructure and addressing gas escaping at wellheads.

These voluntary guidelines will be useful in developing best practices and identifying the most cost-effective ways to reduce methane emissions. But if we truly want to protect the health of our communities and reap any climate benefits from natural gas, voluntary measures aren't enough. Ultimately, we need everyone to play by the same rules. That can only happen by making strong, comprehensive regulations for controlling methane the law of the land - which will accelerate change, spur innovation, and deliver substantial savings.

Getting natural gas right is critical to solving the climate challenge. It is simply not possible for natural gas to play any productive role unless methane emissions are checked. At Conservation Law Foundation, we are pleased to see the commitment President Obama and his administration are making to curb methane emissions. Solving this issue, however, is only one part of making sure that natural gas does not impede our progress on the road to a clean-energy future for the nation. Truly getting gas right means limiting its role to supporting - not slowing - the integration of clean-energy resources such as solar and wind.

We applaud these first steps to reduce methane emissions - and we will continue to build awareness of and call for policies that fully address their dangers and ensure an appropriate role for natural gas in our clean-energy future.