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Google Street View Cars Are Mapping Methane Leaks in US Cities

Methane is even worse for the environment than carbon.

Contrary to what Scott Pruitt thinks, carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to climate change. But it's not the most potent greenhouse gas. That's methane. And small leaks of it are spilling out of gas lines all over the country.

Finding the leaks, however, is another problem. So researchers from Colorado State University (CSU), in partnership with Google Earth Outreach, have equipped Google Street View cars with infrared methane detectors to find leaks in cities around the country so they can be repared.Their project is described in a new paper published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Methane is emitted from natural gas, and has 80 times the warming power of carbon over a 20 year timeframe. Gas line leaks in cities are particularly pernicious, because they lie underground and can go unnoticed for decades. If only 8 percent of the largest leaks in the US were fixed, methane emissions would fall nationwide by 30 percent. But most utility companies and local governments don't have the resources and time to find them.

"That's where we come in," said Joe von Fischer, lead researcher and biologist at CSU in a statement. "Our goal is to make it faster, cheaper and easier to find and measure methane leaks from natural gas lines to help accelerate crucial repairs."

The Google Street View cars "see" methane plumes in real time using an infrared laser methane analyzer. Methane shows up like fog clouds in the infrared spectrum. The four equipped cars currently underway have already mapped 11 cities, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Staten Island, NYC. Boston and Staten Island, with their old corrosive pipelines, were the most flatulent.

It's interesting that the project is using greenhouse gas emitting vehicles to find leaks of greenhouse gas emissions, but at least they're making use of cars already out on the road and not new ones.