Google searches for natural gas leaks, finds a lot of them

Google is teaming up with an environmental group to map methane leaks from natural gas pipelines in US cities. Methane contributes to global warming, and Google hopes its new maps will encourage utilities to patch and replace old pipelines.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP/File
A Google Street View car is on display in Athens, Greece in June. Google has used its Street View map service to help detect methane leaks in Boston, Indianapolis, and New York City's Staten Island.

Want to know where natural gas lines are springing leaks near you? There’s a map for that.

Tech giant Google has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a New York-based advocacy group, to document methane leaks under US cities with the hope they might be patched.   

Most of the cracks and gaps in the nation’s aging pipeline system don’t pose an immediate threat to public safety, but they are increasingly a climate concern. When natural gas – mostly in the form of methane – escapes into the atmosphere, it traps heat more efficiently than it would if it were burned in your stove or at a power plant.

As the US shifts from carbon-heavy coal to cleaner-burning gas, it will have to make sure increased methane leaks don’t cancel out the reduced carbon emissions.  

“Methane leaks are a pervasive challenge throughout the natural gas industry,” Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at EDF, said in a press release. “This is an ideal chance to put new science to work and to solve a major real-world challenge.”

The new interactive maps document methane leaks under the streets of Boston, Indianapolis, and New York City’s Staten Island. EDF and Google will soon map other cities’ methane leaks, with hopes that data will spur emissions-reducing repairs.

Although methane doesn’t linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does, it is much more effective at trapping heat. Pound for pound, methane’s impact on climate change is over 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

To identify leaks, Google sent out the special Street View cars they use to create panoramic images of the world’s streetscapes. The company rigged its cars with special methane-detecting equipment, and – with the help of EDF and Colorado State University researchers – was able to pick up leaks based on 15 million individual readings that Street View cars logged over thousands of miles on the road.

Leaks are more prevalent in Boston and Staten Island than in Indianapolis, according to Susan Fleck, vice president for pipeline safety at National Grid, a natural gas and electric utility. The maps show that in both Boston and Staten Island there is about one methane leak for every mile of road. In Indianapolis, there was one leak for every 200 miles of road. That’s largely because of the age of the infrastructure, Fleck added in a press call Wednesday. The leaks Google examined were of a lower grade of threat than those which must be immediately repaired by utilities.

National Grid is accelerating pipeline repairs and replacement in response to environmental concerns, Ms. Fleck said. The company is investing $1.8 billion in natural gas infrastructure in Massachusetts alone in the next several years.

“National Grid is taking action on several fronts,” Fleck said. “This kind of technology and data helps us do that even better.”

EDF is working with natural gas providers to deploy the data and make it useful. The data could also be relevant as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Transportation consider ways to curb methane emissions.

“This is part of a larger conversation about how we can provide more environmental data to the public and to those folks responsible for the methane supply chain,” Hamburg told reporters in a call Wednesday.

But National Grid acknowledges that EDF’s data is not yet informing their pipeline repair decisions. “This is a pilot program,” Fleck said, and she “can't say definitively right now” how the the innovative maps will influence decision-making.

Utilities have reduced methane emissions by 20 percent since 1990, according to the American Gas Association, a trade organization representing the industry.

"In their attempt to raise the awareness of natural gas emissions the EDF campaign understates the point that utilities are working with state and local policymakers to effectively reduce emissions by adopting innovative rate mechanisms to upgrade, replace and modernize natural gas distribution pipelines for safety and economic reasons," American Gas Association CEO Dave McCurdy said in a statement responding to the release of the methane maps.

Beyond the new Google maps, EDF is working on sixteen independent studies that probe the entire natural gas supply chain, aiming to quantify just how much methane leakage occurs as gas travels to consumers.

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