With support from some utilities, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is piloting a project with Google Earth Outreach that interactively maps natural gas pipeline leaks beneath the streets of Boston, Indianapolis and Staten Island in New York City.

The interactive maps are the first use of Google’s Street View to measure environmental indicators. EDF worked with several utilities to validate the findings, which offer a new way for system operators and regulators to focus and accelerate upgrades.

“New technology has given us vastly greater ability to make environmental data available for everyone to see, and to use that information to solve environmental problems by making better decisions,” said EDF’s Chief Scientist Steven Hamburg. “Methane leaks are a pervasive challenge throughout the natural gas industry. This is an ideal chance to put new science to work and to solve a major real-world challenge.”

The leak detection isn’t to expose an “immediate safety threat,” but rather to measure methane, which is estimated to carry 120 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. Maps for each city are available, constituting the first phase using specially equipped Google Street View mapping cars.

The maps were created using three Google Street View cars equipped with methane sensing technology. EDF and researchers at Colorado State University spent two years experimenting with the system and developing analytical tools to locate and accurately assess the amount of gas escaping from even small leaks detected amid 15 million individual readings collected over thousands of miles of roadway.

Gas utilities routinely monitor their systems for safety, as required by state and federal regulations. However, current methods involve specialized personnel and equipment, and until now it was difficult to determine how much gas was escaping from a given leak, EDF noted.

The U.S. arm of National Grid, which distributes gas to 3.4 million customers in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is participating in the mapping.

“We are taking action, accelerating natural gas pipeline replacement to reduce leaks while enhancing safety and reliability, and this kind of technology and data offers valuable insights,” said National Grid’s Susan Fleck, vice president of Pipeline Safety.

“We’ve taken a leadership role on a national level and support initiatives underway to reduce methane emissions,” she said. “There is a significant investment that comes with these improvements and that can have an impact on our customers. We are committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by working with our regulators and elected leaders to develop appropriate funding mechanisms and policies to achieve these goals.”

EDF in 2012 embarked on a joint project with the University of Texas at Austin and nine of the top U.S. natural gas producers on the largest-ever gas leak detection project (see Daily GPI, Oct. 11, 2012). Last year EDF and West Virginia University also partnered with eight operators to study fugitive methane emissions (see Daily GPI, March 6, 2013). In addition to the work with Google, EDF also has studied emissions from gas well sites, processing facilities, long distance pipelines, as well as commercial trucks and refueling stations.

“Until now, these smaller leaks have not been a priority in most places,” said EDF’s Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for natural gas. “Yet we can see from these maps just how much they can add up. 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.”

The current maps were generated based on months of testing and analysis, with each leak verified with at least two sampling runs on dates noted on the maps, EDF noted. The maps provide an accurate picture of conditions at the time of measurement, but “the information in the maps has not been updated to reflect real-time status. Some of the leaks on the maps could have been repaired, while others may have developed.”

In response to the mapping, the American Gas Association said only a small fraction of produced gas leaks come from local utility pipelines. Utilities have lowered emissions by 22% since 1990, officials noted.

“In their attempt to raise the awareness of natural gas emissions, the EDF campaign understates the point that utilities are working with state and local policymakers to effectively reduce emissions by adopting innovative rate mechanisms to upgrade, replace and modernize natural gas distribution pipelines for safety and economic reasons,” AGA CEO Dave McCurdy said. “We recognize the critical role of states and local governments play in and believe that federal environmental regulations on downstream utilities do not make sense.”