These Google Street View Cars Just Got a New Job Spotting Harmful Methane Leaks in Big Cities

A new partnership among scientists, environmentalists and technology experts is helping to reveal leaks in urban natural gas pipelines, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. And they’re hoping their efforts could help cities cut down on accidental emissions of methane, one of the world’s most potent greenhouse gases.

The project is a collaborative effort among Colorado scientists, the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund and Google’s Street View program. It’s using methane sensors attached to roving Google Street View cars to hunt down methane leaks on the streets of U.S. cities.

The project’s results suggest that some urban areas may have even more leaking pipelines than originally suspected. In fact, according to the lead author of the paper Joseph von Fischer, a biologist at Colorado State University, urban natural gas pipeline leaks have been poorly studied, meaning many cities may not be sure how much methane they’re losing each year.

“There have just been a handful of studies, and the problem is that it’s really very labor-intensive to measure the leaks from the distribution system,” he said.

“But pinpointing these leaks is important. While most natural gas pipeline leaks aren’t a big hazard from a health perspective as long as they’re outdoors, they can occasionally spiral into huge problems for both humans and the environment,” the article states. “Just last year, a ruptured pipe at a storage facility above Los Angeles resulted in one of the biggest accidental greenhouse gas leaks in U.S. history, spewing nearly 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere before it was plugged months later.”

In the paper, the researchers have described their findings in five cities: Burlington, Vt., and Indianapolis, which have more modern pipelines thanks to accelerated pipeline replacement programs, and Boston, Staten Island and Syracuse, N.Y. In each city, drivers were instructed to pass down every street at least twice.

“Not surprisingly, they discovered far fewer leaks in Burlington and Indianapolis — just 11 and five leaks, respectively, compared with hundreds or even thousands in Boston, Staten Island and Syracuse. The results translated to 6 leaks per 100 kilometers of roadway in Burlington and 0.4 leaks per 100 kilometers in Indianapolis, compared with 56, 63 and 28 leaks per 100 kilometers in Boston, Staten Island and Syracuse, respectively,” the article states. “That said, the rate of methane escape tended to be highest in Boston. Overall, the researchers estimate that Boston is losing about 1,300 tons of methane each year in pipeline leaks, compared with 1,000 tons in Staten Island and 300 in Syracuse.”

To read the Washington Post article, click here.

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