Google-gas: mapping cars search for pipeline leaks

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists have teamed up with Google to shine a spotlight on natural gas leaking from pipes buried under city streets in Boston, Indianapolis and Staten Island.

Using sensors and other technology on Google Street View mapping cars, the Environmental Defense Fund and researchers at Colorado State University collected 15 million readings over thousands of miles of roadway.

The result of the venture is a new website and interactive maps that allow people to pinpoint the natural gas leaks, which generally pose no immediate safety threat but send more of the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere.

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The maps vividly illustrate the extent of natural gas leaks from the nation’s aging pipeline infrastructure, going well beyond traditional, routine monitoring by utilities that doesn’t generally reveal how much gas is actually escaping. It also demonstrates the pervasiveness of even small natural gas and methane leaks that may wait years to be repaired.

“Until now, these smaller leaks have not been a priority in most places,” said EDF Associate Vice President Mark Brownstein. “Yet we can see from these maps just how much they can add up.”

The effort comes as the Obama administration takes steps to restrain methane emissions occurring from the oil field to the burner tip. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to decide later this year whether it will expand existing mandates to include oil wells.

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Federal regulators, environmentalists and the gas industry have been doing research designed to document the extent of methane leaks — where they are occurring in the natural gas supply chain and how big they are. Although it dissipates more quickly than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, methane is 21 times more potent.

Existing modeling by the Environmental Protection Agency says 0.24 percent of produced natural gas is emitted from the delivery systems operated by local natural gas utilities that handle some 37 trillion Btu of natural gas daily. But the EPA data has been questioned.

The new EDF site launched Wednesday morning is the first phase of a pilot project designed to put Google Street View cars to work collecting environmental indicators and then make the information easily accessible to policymakers and the public. EDF is also coordinating 16 studies on methane leaks from wells to end users.

Brownstein said the “simple, clickable visualization” on the new website will be “an important advocacy tool”

For now, maps are limited to Indianapolis, Boston and New York City’s Staten Island, but website visitors can nominate their communities as candidates for the mapping project. Other air pollutants will also be mapped as part of the project.

The current maps reveal just four leaks in Indianapolis, where new plastic pipelines distribute gas to customers. That’s in contrast to the thousands of leaks documented among the much older infrastructure in Boston.

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The data underpinning the site was derived from months of testing and analysis over two years, so some identified leaks may already have been fixed. EDF said each leak was verified with at least two sampling runs and the findings were validated with several utilities. The group said its underlying algorithms will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific paper later this year and made available on an open-source basis.

Susan Fleck, vice president of pipeline safety for National Grid, said the utility was working to accelerate the replacement of natural gas pipelines “to reduce leaks while enhancing safety and reliability.”

“This kind of technology and data offers valuable insights,” she said.

The American Gas Association, which represents local gas distribution companies, said the new EDF-Google venture obscures big industry efforts underway now to plug leaks — including pipe replacement projects that may have helped pare emissions 22 percent since 1990.

AGA CEO Dave McCurdy noted that utilities “share an interest in continuing the declining trend in emissions from our pipeline network.”

“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,” McCurdy said.