Google Street View cars are being used to detect gas leaks

Trundling along the streets of Boston, Staten Island, and Indianapolis in recent months, Google’s Street View cars haven’t just been collecting panoramic imagery. Fitted with methane sensors, the cars have also been sniffing out natural gas leaks, a hazard that affects many cities across the US and beyond. The Environmental Defense Fund linked up with Google Earth Outreach to conduct the pilot project, with three Street View cars gathering 15 million readings throughout the three locations. The initiative turned up “thousands” of leaks from utility pipes beneath the streets, providing officials with data on pollution “that used to be invisible,” EDF’s Fred Krupp wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

The Environmental Defense Fund has put the cars that Google Street View deploys to map routes, houses and commercial buildings to a new use: Mapping natural gas leaks. The EDF issued interactive maps on Wednesday that will pinpoint the size and location of thousands of natural gas leaks from distribution pipes that lie below Boston, Indianapolis and Staten Island, data collected by using three specially-equipped Google Street View cars that took measurements every half second. The maps show that Indianapolis, which has installed plastic pipe, has four leaks. But in Boston — where natural gas travels through cast iron pipes dating back as far as the late 1800s and steel pipe installed in an era before rust protection — there are approximately 3,000 leaks, many of them in pressing need of repair. Staten Island falls somewhere in between. The study is one of a series of 16 that EDF is conducting to figure out just how much natural gas is leaking all along the supply chain, from shale gas wells drilled with hydraulic fracturing to processing plants, pipelines, commercial vehicles, and homes. The results are critical because natural gas, or methane, is a potent greenhouse gas, with about 120 times the effect of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Many supporters of the shale gas boom have argued that natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal plants do in the combustion process, but even small quantities of natural gas leaks could erase that advantage.

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