Google Street View Cars Find Methane Leaks In Pittsburgh

Nov 16, 2016


Google equipped Street View mapping cars with sensors to detect gas leaks for six months in 2015. The findings were released Tuesday.
Credit Kara Holsopple / 90.5 WESA

For six months in 2015, Google Street View mapping cars drove 320 miles through Pittsburgh neighborhoods. They weren’t mapping streets, but instead searched for methane leaks.

Tuesday, the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach released their findings, which included 201 methane leaks, or one for every 2 miles in Pittsburgh.

“Methane leaks are a serious issue in cities across the country,” said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp. “It’s a waste of customer resources, a waste of natural resources and a serious environmental challenge.”

A map shows where Google Street View cars found methane leaks in Pittsburgh. Yellow dots indicate a low-level gas leak, orange indicates a medium-level leak and red indicates a high-level leak.
Credit Environmental Defense Fund

The cars, equipped with sensors to detect gas leaks, drove along city streets between Downtown, Oakland and Highland Park from June to November of 2015. Krupp said 85 percent of the leaks were low level, which are not a safety concern.

“But these leaks can go undetected, unrepaired for a long period and cumulatively that adds us to a real big problem,” he said.

Peoples Natural Gas President and CEO Morgan O’Brien said after hearing about the pilot project in other cities, the company invited the Environmental Defense Fund and Google to check the company’s pipes.

“Every day, when we replace pipe, we understand what impact that’s going to have on the environment,” he said. “We never thought that way. We were thinking safety and reliability, but now we’re prioritizing based on impact. It’s about the future of the world; it’s about the health of the people who live here.”

Krupp said Pittsburgh was selected because 46 percent of Peoples gas pipes are more than 50 years old and 29 percent are made of leak-prone materials.

Google Earth Outreach Program Director Karin Tuxen-Bettman said she was excited that Google’s technology could play a role in the methane mapping.   

Sensors added to Google Street View mapping cars last year found 201 methane leaks in the city, or one for every 2 miles.
Credit Kara Holsopple / 90.5 WESA

“Making this information more accessible can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Of the 11 cities involved in the pilot project, Boston, Mass. and Staten Island, N.Y. had the worst leak rate: about one leak for every mile. The city with the best rate was Indianapolis, Ind. with just five total leaks in 770 miles driven.

Krupp said finding and repairing the leaks is important because methane accounts for 25 percent of the global warming today. 

“Reducing emissions from our oil and gas supply chain, whether it’s from wellheads or the pipes under your street, turns out to be the fastest way to bring down global warming,” he said.

O’Brien said Peoples is in a 20-year-long process to replace all of its pipes in the region at a cost of $3 billion. He said the pipes under Pittsburgh streets should be modernized within five or six years.