The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has teamed up with tech giant Google to detect leaks in natural-gas transmission systems in an effort to curb emissions of high-polluting methane.
Under the pilot project, Google Street View mapping cars outfitted with special methane detectors drove around the streets of three large US cities to gather data about how much gas was leaking from utility pipeline systems.
The information was injected into a Google Maps application that displays where the methane leaks were occurring.
In the cities with older infrastructure, like Boston, Massachusetts, and Staten Island, New York, methane leaks were more rampant. In Indianapolis, where the pipeline are newer, leaks were far fewer.
EDF said the project, which has been under development for two years, demonstrates the ability to collect and display data on methane leaks in a way that has been "difficult or impossible until now".
"New technology has given us vastly 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."
Environmentalists say leaky pipelines from the wellhead on down the supply chain may negate the positive impact of increased US gas production. While the fuel has been trumpeted as a far cleaner source of energy than carbon-emitting coal, critics have pointed out that the methane leaking from transmission systems may be a net negative in terms of reducing greenhouse emissions.
Methane is said to be a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon.
The Google cars cannot detect precisely where a leak is coming from, but EDF said showing a graphical representation of how frequently leaks occur "illustrates the true scale of the problem".
"Until now, these smaller leaks have not been a priority in most places. Yet we can see from these maps just how much they can add up," said Mark Brownstein, EDF associate vice president & chief counsel for natural gas.
The American Gas Association, an industry group, said in a statement that only a small fraction of produced natural gas leaks from local utility pipelines and that the industry has made strides in lowering emissions in the past several years.
"In their attempt to raise the awareness of natural gas emissions the EDF campaign understates the point that utilities are working with state and local policymakers to effectively reduce emissions by adopting innovative rate mechanisms to upgrade, replace and modernise natural gas distribution pipelines for safety and economic reasons," the association said.