Google Earth Outreach help analyze methane leaks in US cities

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Scientists are joining hands with Google for use of Google Earth in a bid to find and fix natural gas leaks across the US.

Natural gas leaks persist across the country and beyond health concerns of these leaks there are environmental implications as well because the leaks are mostly of methane that is a potent greenhouse gas. Scientists teamed up with Google Earth Outreach to outfit Street View cars with methane analyzers to map leaks and findings have been reported in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Scientists fit methane analyzers in three Google Street View cars that drove around a number of cities including Boston; Indianapolis; Staten Island, New York; Syracuse, New York; and Burlington, Vermont. On analysis of the data collected by these methane analyzers, scientists found that on average, Boston, Staten Island and Syracuse — cities with lots of old, corrosion-prone distribution lines — had leaks that released 25 times more methane per kilometer of road (2 liters of methane per minute per kilometer) than Burlington and Indianapolis (0.08 liters of methane per minute per kilometer).

The cities with low rates have implemented “accelerated pipeline replacement programs” and have pipelines with more modern materials. The researchers calculate that repairs to the largest 8 percent of leaks would cut pipeline methane emissions by 30 percent. Their mapping results are publicly available here: https://www.edf.org/climate/methanemaps.

Scientists point out that while all utilities are required to monitor their lines and quickly fix leaks that pose a safety threat, smaller and/or more remote leaks if not given due attention can go undetected or unrepaired for long periods. Better data could be used to support and prioritize hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure repair and replacement efforts. But conventional techniques for detecting and locating methane leaks from natural gas pipelines are laborious. Only a handful of studies have been conducted to pinpoint their locations and make the data publicly available. To help solve this problem, scientists at Colorado State University partnered with Google Earth Outreach — the tech company’s arm that offers resources to nonprofits — and experts from the Environmental Defense Fund to find a new, efficient way to map leaks.