EDF, Google Use Special Street View Cars to Map and Measure Leaks from Pittsburgh Natural Gas System

Working with Peoples Gas and State, Local Officials to Reduce Waste, Emissions; Results Show Technology Can Help Reach Statewide Methane Goals

November 15, 2016
Jon Coifman, jcoifman@edf.org, 212-616-1325
Elaine Labalme, elaine.labalme@gmail.com, 412-996-4112
Mara Harris, maraharris@google.com, 650-713-9868
Barry Kukovich, Barry.D.Kukovich@peoples-gas.com, 412-430-3187

(PITTSBURGH, PA – November 15, 2016) Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach today released online maps showing the location and size of methane leaks discovered beneath Pittsburgh city streets using specially-equipped Google Street View mapping cars. The project is designed to showcase cutting-edge technologies to help operators prioritize costly pipeline repair and replacement efforts.

Peoples Gas, which owns the pipes, has been working to replace aging, leak-prone lines throughout its system, and invited EDF to bring the project to Pittsburgh. Leaks like the ones mapped by the team don’t usually pose an immediate safety threat, but leaking natural gas – which is mostly methane – has a powerful effect on the climate, packing 84 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. Reducing methane leakage has also been a major focus of Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to ensure that Pennsylvania’s oil and gas sector is both cleaner and more competitive.

“Methane leaks are a serious issue in cities across the country, and for the oil and gas industry as a whole. It’s a waste of customer resources, a waste of national resources, and a serious environmental challenge,” said EDF President Fred Krupp. “Replacing old, leaking pipes is an important opportunity to cut greenhouse emissions quickly. New data like this can help get the job done in a way that’s better for ratepayers and the environment alike.”

The Pittsburgh maps are online at www.edf.org/climate/methanemaps.

A video on the project is at http://tinyurl.com/MethaneMaps.

Nearly half of Pittsburgh’s local gas lines are more than 50 years old. Street View mapping cars collected hundreds of thousands of readings over 320 miles of city streets between downtown, Oakland and Highland Park, chosen as a representative sample. Created from data taken over a period of months, the maps don’t paint a real-time picture. But they do reflect conditions facing Peoples Gas and dozens of other utilities, particularly in older cities.

“Peoples approached the EDF to begin to measure and monitor methane releases from our pipelines, and we thank them for lending their expertise on this project,” said Morgan O’Brien, president and CEO of Peoples. “Peoples has embarked on a 20-year, multibillion dollar pipeline modernization and methane mitigation program. We will hone the data, technology and methodology developed during this project to drive our improvement plan throughout our entire pipeline system.”     

Peoples is accelerating their pipe replacement effort, prioritizing the most populated areas in and around the Pittsburgh. They plan to continue working with EDF, along with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, to expand methane monitoring efforts and maximize the resulting environmental benefits.

New Technology Brings New Benefits

The leak detection and measurement technology used in this project is newer and more sensitive than typically used by utilities generating far more information than most operators now collect. All utilities are required by law to monitor their lines and immediately fix leaks that pose a safety threat. But other leaks can and often do go undetected or unrepaired for long periods. Over time, the emissions add up.

“Google has a close connection and long history with the Pittsburgh community, and shares its dedication to science, technology, and the environment. We are excited that Google technology can play an important role here, to power the measurement, analysis, and communication of environmental information,” said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Program Manager for Google Earth Outreach. “Making this information more accessible can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.”

Utilities in New York and California are already publishing dynamic maps of their natural gas leaks. Sharing geographically-attributed leak data can help regulators and ratepayers track utilities’ leak management performance, and ensure cost-efficient emission reductions. In New Jersey, the state’s largest utility is using data collected by EDF and Google Earth Outreach to maximize the environmental benefits of a $900 million pipeline replacement program.

Next Steps in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has taken important steps to address the methane challenge across the oil and gas supply chain, putting it ahead of many other states. Earlier this year, Governor Tom Wolf proposed a multi-pronged strategy to reduce methane emissions from the state’s oil and gas sector, including best management practices to address pipeline leaks. But there’s more that can be done.

“Pennsylvania should require more frequent leak surveys using state-of-the-art technology across the oil and gas supply chain, not just to find leaks, but also to measure them. That data should also be more accessible to both regulators and the public,” Krupp said.

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