EDF Teams With Google Earth Outreach to Map and Measure Underground Methane Leaks from Southern California’s Natural Gas System

Initiative Highlights Hidden Climate Risk, Reveals Untapped Opportunity; Online Maps Will Help Utilities, Regulators Accelerate System Upgrades

May 14, 2015
Anna Geismar, (512) 691-3468, ageismar@edf.org

(LOS ANGELES – May 14, 2015) A new set of interactive online maps identify the location and size of hundreds of natural gas leaks beneath the streets in select parts of greater Los Angeles. Developed as part of a technology partnership between Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Google Earth Outreach, the maps include Chino, Inglewood, and Pasadena, all in territory served by Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas).

The maps were developed using specially-equipped Google Street View mapping cars, under a partnership with Google Earth Outreach designed to showcase new environmental sensing technologies. They are available at www.edf.org/climate/methanemaps. Leaks like these usually don’t 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.

“Methane leaks are a serious climate problem, and a major issue throughout the natural gas supply chain. Because methane is such a potent pollutant, fixing leaks is a major opportunity for California and the rest of the country to put a big dent in greenhouse emissions, quickly and cost-effectively,” said Tim O’Connor, Director of EDF’s California State Climate Initiative. “New technologies like this that enable rapid detection and measurement make it easier for utilities like SoCalGas to find leaks, prioritize repairs, and maintain the overall integrity of their pipes.”

Methane reductions can and should play a key role in helping meet the state’s ambitious climate goals –as laid out most recently in both the executive order announced by Governor Jerry Brown on April 30, and in a new statewide plan to cut pollutants like methane that was announced on May 7. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is already in the process of developing rules requiring local gas utilities to cut methane emissions.

These maps show that, for utilities like Southern California Gas, there is a lot more that can be done to fix leaks from aging infrastructure and we need to do it sooner rather than later,” said L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz. “With its worsening drought, California is on the front lines of climate change. If we are going to set an example for the rest of the world to follow on climate emissions reductions, California has to gets its own house in order.” Mr. Koretz hosted a symposium on methane emissions in Los Angeles in March of this year and has introduced a motion calling on the City to address its substantial methane leak problem.

Based on nearly two million readings taken during at least two passes over 1,100 miles of local roadways, EDF found almost 250 leaks, all of which were reported to SoCalGas as soon as the data was processed. (The online maps do not represent real-time conditions, but reflect conditions on a typical day when they were tested.)

Methane emissions represent waste of natural gas, a valuable energy resource. According to California Air Resource Board data, oil and gas operations of all kinds in the state emitted roughly 140,000 metric tons of methane in 2012, enough to serve almost 160,000 homes.


The First Good Look at a Growing Challenge


The new maps contain the first detailed public data on leak sizes in the Southern California region. Currently, natural gas utilities like SoCalGas are required to report the number and locations of leaks they detect on their systems to the CPUC, but they are not required to measure or report the size of those leaks. Nor is it clear how or when that data will be publically available as required by law. 

“Results like these are not unusual for utilities operating older systems in large metropolitan areas. That’s exactly why we’ve undertaken this nationwide project to help both operators and regulators better understand the issue,” O’Connor said. “Aging pipes can lead to more leaks, and are a growing challenge in many parts of the country. It’s time for both policymakers and utilities in California to start solving this problem, and we’re very confident they can.”

New Technology Means Better Opportunity

EDF has been working with utilities in markets around the U.S., including New York, Boston, and Indianapolis, to validate technology to assess leak sizes quickly and inexpensively, offering a valuable new way for both system operators and regulators to focus and accelerate upgrades where they will reduce emissions most effectively.

The technology in this pilot project is newer and more sensitive than typically used by utilities to monitor the safety of their systems. It is designed to find and measure leaks that wouldn’t necessarily turn up or warrant repair on safety concerns alone, but which do add up to a major environmental issue. EDF and researchers at Colorado State University have spent three years testing and fine-tuning the technology, which is built specifically to filter out other kinds of methane emissions, including natural sources, waste dumps, and natural gas vehicles.

“New technology has given us vastly greater ability to make environmental data available for everyone to see, and to use that information to address 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 a great opportunity to put new science to work in addressing a critically important real-world challenge.”



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