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Google Street View Cars Measure Methane Gas Leaks

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, August 1 2014

Screenshot of the three EDF maps: Boston, Indianapolis, and Staten Island

Cities degrade. Potholes may jar us and delays due to construction may irritate us, but it is impossible to perceive the full extent of a city's decay. Environmental Defense Fund, however, has partnered with Google Earth Outreach to make visible one environmental hazard of aging infrastructure: natural gas leaks. Earlier this month they published maps of leaks in Boston, Indianapolis and Staten Island. Although utilities companies are responsible for monitoring leaks and repairing those that could become dangerous, this is the first time information about leaks has been gathered on such a large scale by an outside group and made public.

The President of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Fred Krupp, wrote in a blog post that this project is part of “the most innovative trend in environmental protection.”

Krupp elaborates:

Not so long ago, people who worried about pollution in their local environment had few options. Getting answers required hands-on testing by trained experts with specialized equipment, or finding and sifting through scarce, hard-to-come-by data.

Today all of that is changing. A convergence of tech trends – inexpensive sensors, cloud computing and data analysis, and social media – is transforming environmental protection by giving people and organizations like Environmental Defense Fund the ability to collect and analyze huge amounts of information, then publish results for all to see.

Mapping, however, has been trending for years now. Google has worked with nonprofits to tell stories about the environment through maps since 2005. Moreover, this project relied on two things Krupp seems to scorn or dismiss in that blog post: expensive sensors, which Google purchased for this project, and testing by trained experts, in this case scientists from Colorado State University. In many ways this particular project is very traditional: scientists, established organizations and companies gathered information and then presented it to the public. EDF's engagement model is the same one it has had for years: look at this; write your congressperson or the president; donate.

This is not to dismiss the value of this project, but merely to probe the extent to which it is "most innovative."

Small Leaks; Big Impact

Major natural gas leaks can lead to deadly explosions if not promptly fixed, and small leaks contribute to smog conditions and global warming. The comparative impact of methane on our atmosphere is more than 20 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EDF estimates 25 percent of manmade global warming can be attributed to methane emissions.

That is why methane emissions are the subject of 16 independent research projects organized by EDF, including the leak mapping project they conducted with GEO and researchers from Colorado State University. The project contained firsts for both EDF and GEO.

EDF has a history of partnering with corporations dating back to the '90s, when they helped McDonald's reduce waste by switching to new containers. However, the methane mapping project does not involve changing the way Google does business that in some way benefits the environment. This, EDF's Millie Baird says, was a first for the organization.

GEO, on the other hand, has been partnering with nonprofit organizations for nearly a decade. Those partnerships to date have been about helping organizations use maps to tell stories. This project was the first for which GEO deployed Street View cars for environmental research purposes.

Over the course of a year, three Street View cars equipped with sensors drove thousands of miles, measuring and recording methane leakage all the while. Every mile had to be driven twice in order to verify the readings. The maps EDF published earlier this month show that Boston's natural gas pipes, many of which are more than 50 years old and made of easily corroded material like cast iron, are particularly leaky, averaging one leak for every mile of pipe. (Baird says that these are conservative numbers, too, because they remove any elevated readings that they aren't able to verify.) In Indianapolis, however, EDF found only five leaks in total. The utility company in Indianapolis, Citizens Energy Group, began replacing old pipes in the '80s, and now less than one percent of their pipes are cast iron.

“We still need those guys [from the utilities companies] on the streets looking for every leak they can find,” says Professor Joe von Fischer, who led the Colorado State University's team that worked on this project. “But their results aren’t made public, and so the public can’t see how well its infrastructure compares to other cities. This project makes that data visible.”

EDF's Millie Baird explained to techPresident that these maps will also help utilities companies prioritize the biggest leaks.

It can also function as a check on utilities companies that may be failing to properly monitor and plug natural gas leaks, resulting in preventable disasters, like the 2010 explosion in California that killed eight people. In that case, Pacific Gas & Electric was found responsible for improperly testing and maintaining their aging pipelines.

Next Steps

The methane mapping project is far from over. The next step is to reach out to utilities companies and local and national representatives to encourage them to act on this information, and to map more cities. Visitors to the EDF blog post about the methane mapping project are encouraged to nominate their city for methane mapping and to email President Obama in support of action on methane.

Although the three Street View cars in the project were dedicated to methane mapping alone (meaning the cameras were turned off), Karin Tuxen-Bettman, project manager at GEO, says there could come a time when Street View cars are equipped with sensors and take readings during their normal, Street View car duties.

Perhaps the next step for EDF more generally would be to take full advantage of new, inexpensive and widely accessible technology. Krupp certainly understands the potential that holds.

“Our maps are part of a powerful new era of environmental monitoring and protection,” he wrote. “From Beijing and Fukushima to the rainforests of Brazil, technology is giving people new ways to see–and act on–pollution that is happening around them.”

He added:

As former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg likes to say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure – and now people everywhere have the ability to take accurate measurements and publish them online, which applies pressure on authorities to step up their management.

All true, and it would be exciting to see the EDF incorporate more people-driven, citizen science into their projects.

As Liz Barry, the co-founder of the civic science organization Public Lab, explained to techPresident: “Having a lot of data isn't the same as data literacy...[or as having citizens] who have articulated questions and are seeking to understand the environmental situation and if needed seek redress and remediation.”