Google project maps natural gas leaks under city streets

Google and environmentalists are joining forces to track natural gas leaks from pipelines beneath city streets.

Using Google Street View mapping cars, the conservation group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Colorado State University researchers collected more than 15 million readings over thousands of miles of roadway to detect the leaks.

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The EDF is also sharing the findings with leading utilities to validate the data on natural gas leaks, which is mostly methane — a potent greenhouse gas.

Results from the first project, which focused on pipelines beneath Boston, Indianapolis and New York City's Staten Island, go live Wednesday on EDF's website, and are for public use.

Traditional routine maintenance checks aren't able to capture accurate readings on how much methane is escaping into the atmosphere. The new map demonstrates the pervasiveness of small natural gas and methane leaks.

"Until now, these smaller leaks have not been a priority in most places,” said EDF Associate Vice President Mark Brownstein. "By pulling vast amounts of information together in a place that offers simple, clickable visualization, the platform is going to be an important advocacy tool, one that helps shift resources to an area of historic underinvestment.”

Google's Street View cars are able to gather data through special methane sensors and technology placed on the vehicle.

“Environmental quality is an issue that affects everyone," said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, program manager for Google Earth Outreach.

"Making this information more accessible can make a meaningful difference in people’s quality of life. This pilot project is meant to explore and understand the potential for EDF and others to map and visualize important environmental information in ways that help people understand both problems and solutions," Tuxen-Bettman said.

As natural gas production in the U.S. shows no signs of slowing, methane leaks are becoming a greater challenge that the industry says it is tackling head-on.

President of the American Gas Association Dave McCurdy said utilities are already working with local policymakers to reduce emissions and upgrade pipeline infrastructure.

President Obama has touted natural gas as the "bridge fuel" to help mitigate climate change, and directed agencies to work on a guidelines for the industry as a part of a larger methane strategy.

The EDF said future projects will track more cities and are looking into mapping other air pollutants.

The algorithms used will also be published later this year by the EDF in a peer-reviewed scientific paper.