EDF/google earth outreach map gas leaks under city streets.

Position::Tech Notes: Product Development

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDFP) recently unveiled interactive online maps showing natural gas leaks beneath the streets of Boston, Indianapolis and New York City's Staten Island. Leaks like these rarely pose an immediate safety threat, but the leaking natural gas--which is mostly methane--has a powerful effect on the global climate, carrying 120 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

Maps for each city are available at http://edf.org/methanemaps. They constitute the first phase of a pilot project developed using specially equipped Google Street View mapping cars, under a partnership between EDF and Google Earth Outreach to explore and unlock the potential of new sensing and analytical technologies to measure environmental indicators in ways that have been difficult or impossible until now, and to make that information more accessible to everyone.

EDF also worked with several leading utilities to validate the findings, which offer a new way for both system operators and regulators to focus and accelerate upgrades. Visitors to the website can nominate their communities as future candidates for the mapping project.

"New technology has given us 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 maps were created using three Google Street View cars specially equipped with sophisticated methane sensing technology. EDF and researchers at Colorado State University spent two years experimenting with the system and developing analytical tools to not only locate, but also accurately assess the amount of gas escaping from even small leaks detected amid 15 million individual readings collected over thousands of miles of roadway.

"Environmental quality is an issue that affects everyone. Making this information more accessible can make a meaningful difference in people's quality of life," said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, program manager for Google Earth Outreach. 'This pilot project is meant to explore and understand the potential for EDF and others to map and visualize important environmental information in ways that help people understand both problems and solutions."

Natural gas utilities routinely monitor their systems for safety,...

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