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An Overlooked Contributor to Climate Change: Leaky Pipes

These tricked-out, air sensor-equipped Google cars are helping to identify dangerous natural gas pipelines.

Photo by William J Sisti

Underneath the streets and sidewalks of American cities lie hundreds of thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines. The fuel is used to heat apartments, homes, and businesses from Boston to New York to San Francisco, and countless other cities and towns in between.

The problem is, much of this infrastructure is decades old—nearly half of natural gas pipelines operated by Consolidated Edison and National Grid in New York were first laid before 1940, for instance. And these old lines leak with startling regularity.

Usually, the leaks are minor and slow and don’t present an immediate threat to public safety, though there are tragic exceptions—for example the fatal explosions in East Harlem this past winter, or in San Bruno, California in 2010. Though the most common leaks are smaller, they still wind up releasing a whole lot of methane, which eventually floats up into the atmosphere as a particularly potent greenhouse gas. In fact, on a pound-for-pound basis, methane is 120 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. And though the gas only lingers in the atmosphere for 20 years or so, it’s a major, ongoing contributor to climate change.

Unfortunately, there are no current incentives for energy companies to monitor for natural gas leaks, not to mention that the process of doing so would come at a great and consistent expense. Government regulators are also not addressing the problem, being ill equipped, and certainly not eager to take on the job.

An organized effort to check for potentially dangerous leaks would required trekking through every road in major cities and towns nationwide—a daunting task, certainly, but one that a dynamic partnership between the Google Earth Outreach team, Environmental Defense Fund, and Colorado State University is currently attempting to tackle. By outfitting Google Street View cars with air quality sensors, the vehicles could identify methane leaks while simultaneously snapping 360-degree photos of America’s roadways.

The pilot project mapped three sites to begin with—Boston, Indianapolis, and Staten Island in New York—and early results support the theory that older pipelines leak a great deal more than newly-laid infrastructure.

Check out Boston, where roughly half of the pipes are more than 50 years old. The Google cars discovered a leak just about every mile they drove.

(Click for interactive map)

And here’s Indianapolis, where the pipelines tend to be newer—virtually none are made of cast iron or other corrosive materials. Here the Google cars registered a leak only every 200 or so miles driven.

(Click for interactive map)

And the project isn’t only useful for proving that older, corrosive pipelines are more dangerous. By pinpointing these leaking problem areas, Google Earth Outreach and EDF can share the data with energy companies like National Grid, which can then use the information to prioritize repairs and work towards reducing the amount of escaping methane.

According to EDF, in coming months the team will be loading sensors onto Street View cars in dozens more cities around the country.

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