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Scientists Partner With Google Earth Outreach to Analyze Methane Leaks in US Cities

Finding and fixing natural gas leaks is a persistent challenge for utilities across the country.

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Finding and fixing natural gas leaks is a persistent challenge for utilities across the country. In addition to the serious safety considerations, leaking natural gas — which is mostly methane — also contributes the potent greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. To help address this problem, scientists teamed up with Google Earth Outreach to outfit Street View cars with methane analyzers to map leaks. They report their findings in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

All utilities are required to monitor their lines and quickly fix leaks that pose a safety threat. But smaller or more remote leaks not deemed hazardous can go undetected or unrepaired for long periods. Now, system operators, regulators and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly aware of the potential climate implications of allowing these leaks to go unchecked. 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.

Methane analyzers were placed in three Google Street View cars that drove around Boston; Indianapolis; Staten Island, New York; Syracuse, New York; and Burlington, Vermont. 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:

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