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Environmental Defense Fund teams with Google to map thousands of dangerous gas leaks in U.S. cities

Gas leaks

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(NaturalNews) Google Earth, the interactive grid of the world, continues to expand its mapping capabilities. Google routinely deploys vehicles into cities to map out roads and routes, while obtaining street views and photos of commercial buildings and homes. Now, Google is putting the technology to great use and is teaming up with the Environmental Defense Fund to pinpoint thousands of gas leaks in U.S. cities.

Thousands of gas leaks already pinpointed in Boston and New York

Three specially equipped Google Street View cars have been deployed to take measurements every half-second of natural gas leaks stemming from distribution pipes below cities like Boston, New York and Indianapolis. The interactive maps document the size of the leaks and their precise location. Already, the map is showing four leaks under Indianapolis, but this is slight when compared to other cities.

The map is glowing with gas leak hotspots in Boston, indicating at least 3,000 leaks throughout the city. New York's Staten Island also shows over 1,000 gas leaks. One of the main problems is that the piping in these cities is ancient; some pipes were installed in the late 1800s. The ancient cast-iron pipes are crippled and in need of urgent repair. Other steel pipes installed in the early 1900's have no rust protection. In Indianapolis, newer plastic piping ensures the least amount of leaks.

Environmental Defense Fund working with city utilities to replace piping infrastructure

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is getting serious about limiting amounts of greenhouse gases and other environmental pollutants. Natural gas and methane that leak from the supply chain are posing a dire environmental and health threat. The EDF ultimately plans to examine leaks from shale gas wells to processing plants, and from pipelines all the way to commercial homes and vehicles.

Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president and lawyer at the EDF, said that city utilities and regulators can now do a more efficient job at repairing and replacing pipes thanks to the new gas leak mapping. "You now have the ability to prioritize by addressing the most serious ones first. You will get a bigger bang for the buck spent repairing utility infrastructure. It is good for the environment, ratepayers and ultimately for the utilities themselves because they will now be able to make a stronger case for the dollars that they are spending," he said.

Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but not when it's leaking throughout the city

While natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal-fired power plants during the combustion process, small leaks across U.S. cities are wiping out that clean energy advantage. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 0.24 percent of the natural gas leaks from the delivery system. The EDF team is prepping to prioritize at least 1,000 serious leaks by working with the Con Edison utility map.

A Massachusetts utility company named National Grid is already preparing to rebuild a network of aged cast-iron pipe spanning over 2,000 miles. An additional 1,441 miles of steel pipe lacking rust protection is to be replaced. All together, the project may take up to 26 years as workers tediously replace the city's gas infrastructure. $1.8 billion is expected in costs over the next five years alone.

EDF scientists believe that Google Maps will help people in every city understand the threat of environmental pollutants, assisting community-wide efforts in cleaning up the environmental.

"It's about the democratization of data, giving people the data to understand their environment in a different way," said EDF scientist Steve Hamburg.

Utility companies have reduced methane emissions by 20 percent since 1990 and will continue accelerating new safety measures and infrastructure improvements. Sue Fleck, National Grid's vice president of pipeline safety and compliance, is excited about the new maps and the awareness that they are bringing. They "give us a level of detail we've never had before," she said. "We applaud EDF for bringing more information into the decision tree. Better information leads to better decisions and better decisions keep the costs low."

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