You don’t often find oil and gas companies lining up to take business advice from a bunch of tree huggers—especially when it comes to climate change. But that’s exactly what happened when the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) decided to tackle the problem of leaking methane, a rarely mentioned but extremely potent greenhouse pollutant.
Methane, the main constituent of natural gas, is a lot cleaner than coal when used to make electricity, but when it gets into the atmosphere unburned it behaves like an invisible blanket. At least 10 million tons of methane escapes from the nation’s sprawling oil and gas system every year, resulting in about a good portion of the warming the planet is currently seeing.
Along with production, refining and storage infrastructure, a good portion of that leakage comes from the gas pipelines running beneath our cities. But finding the leaks and determining their size is incredibly difficult.
A conventional environmental group might have taken an adversarial position toward the utilities, but EDF president Fred Krupp had a different idea: Could EDF act as a catalyst between scientists, companies, and utilities to devise a way to locate leaks by mounting detectors on cars? He approached his chief scientist, Steven Hamburg, to see if it was even technologically possible.
“To be honest, I told him no,” Hamburg recalls. Telling the difference between methane from leaks and methane from other nearby sources (like landfills or natural gas vehicles) is tricky, and the main challenge was quantifying the leaks in a way that utilities could act on the information. But as he started digging into the science, Hamburg saw hope.
Nathan Phillips, a professor at Boston University, for example, had successfully mapped methane concentrations in the streets of Boston. Hamburg began thinking that maybe even roughly categorizing leaks by size could help companies prioritize which to fix first. Then, when Hamburg spoke at Colorado State University (CSU) at Fort Collins as part of a tour to get academic scientists involved in EDF projects, Joe von Fischer, a biologist by training, raised his hand.
Von Fischer told Hamburg about his own experience with methane. Out of curiosity, he had once had a student drive a methane detector around town. They quickly discovered a methane leak coming from a bioreactor at a local brewery.
Von Fisher brought it to the company’s attention, and wound up helping tighten down the fittings that were releasing methane into the atmosphere. The professor was hooked on real-world impact. So when EDF came along, he jumped at the chance to work with an organization so focused on getting solutions into companies’ hands.
But translating raw data from methane sensors into actionable knowledge about the location of the worst leaks in crowded cities was still a problem—one that took two years to solve.
Taking it to the streets
“You can say, ‘Let’s put methane sensors in the back of a car,’ but you get 60 data points per second out of that stream,” says von Fischer. “To turn that into a map of where natural gas leaks are and how big those leaks are requires a lot of science, a lot of interpreting of the data.”
In collaboration with CSU computer scientists and a micrometeorologist, von Fischer developed an algorithm to identify leaks by modeling plumes of methane in space and time and matching them to “fingerprints” of sample leaks of various sizes.
Meanwhile, EDF locked down another piece of the puzzle: getting Google to repurpose some of its Street View cars, designed for taking pictures of every block in America, into methane detection machines. It didn’t take long to sell the idea.
“We said, ‘Great!’ Not only is this an organization that already has a scientific partner, but EDF knows how to act on knowledge in a way that has policy impact,” says Karin Tuxen-Bettman, program manager at Google Earth Outreach, a team that helps nonprofits use the company’s tools. “They are talking to utilities, and they can put data in front of people who can make a difference.”
No one at Google had ever tried mounting air-quality sensors on a Street View car, but Tuxen-Bettman was game. Google retrofitted EDF’s detection system onto its cars and began testing in Boston, Indianapolis, and New York City. As the cars drove up and down each street, a pump drew in air through a small tube under the front bumper and shot it back to the trunk, where a methane analyzer took a reading. A GPS unit marked the path, and a cell modem beamed data to a Google server, where von Fischer at CSU accessed it.
The results were eye-opening.
In Boston, a historic city where most pipes are more than 50 years old, the team discovered an astounding average of one leak for each mile driven. In Indianapolis, where a local utility had pursued an aggressive plan of pipeline replacement, the Street View cars picked up an average of just one leak for every 200 miles driven.
As the tests got off the ground, EDF spread the word to utilities. Executives at National Grid, a large utility in the Northeast, were among the intrigued.
“We said, ‘That’s great. How can we collaborate?’ ” says Donald Chahbazpour, National Grid’s director of climate-change compliance. “We can find leaks, but they are tough to quantify, and what we hadn’t been able to do is prioritize based on leak size.”
National Grid quickly joined the project. “You can have unlikely partners as great collaborators, and this happens by sitting down and spending time listening to each other,” says Chahbazpour. “You’d be surprised. A lot of times you’ll be thinking about the same issue, but thinking about it differently.” Slowly but surely, EDF was bringing unlikely partners, who never would have met otherwise, to the table.
The team from EDF, CSU, and Google has now mapped leaks in more than a dozen U.S. cities. In Pittsburgh, they worked with Peoples Natural Gas, the mayor, and the governor of Pennsylvania—the nation’s second-largest gas producer after Texas.
Using data from the project, a New Jersey utility reduced methane emissions from targeted areas by more than three-quarters, while replacing one-third fewer miles of pipe than if the utility had not had the findings gathered by EDF and Google. In New York, their method is being used to maximize the climate benefits of a three- year, $3 billion plan to replace nearly 600 miles of old, leak-prone pipes.
Today, the technological ripples are spreading.
“When a diverse group like this collaborates on a common problem, we can tackle environmental challenges with more agility than ever before,” says Hamburg.
Back at Google, folks are now figuring out what other sorts of air-quality sensors can be mounted on Street View cars. EDF and the company recently finished a pollution mapping project in West Oakland, California, this time partnering with the tech startup Aclima.
“The EDF partnership showed it was possible and could have impact,” says Tuxen-Bettman. “We intend to go bigger in the future.”
A catalyst in action
Other EDF methane partnerships are bearing fruit as well. Four years ago, the fund launched the Methane Detectors Challenge, calling for tech companies big and small to develop inexpensive, continuous sensors that could be permanently mounted on industrial equipment and fill the monitoring gap. Dozens of pitches streamed in from around the world, and pilot projects are under way in the field with Shell, Statoil, and Pacific Gas & Electric.
In September, EDF announced yet another new initiative, the Mobile Monitoring Challenge, in partnership with Stanford University. The task for technologists: Come up with methane sensors that can be attached to planes, helicopters, and drones, which can then cost-effectively fly over large swaths of oil and natural gas installations.
“You could use this to survey an entire region worth of equipment,” says Mark Brownstein, vice president in the climate and energy program at EDF. “You could use it for refineries, for leaks along the pipeline system.”
Tree huggers working with oil refineries! What’s the world coming to? For Brownstein and others at EDF, the goal is to bring the right people together to create innovative solutions. “The easier it is to find problems and fix them, the more likely companies will, especially if we can make a compelling business case,” Brownstein says. “Our role really is to catalyze the types of changes that can transform industry and reduce pollution.”
This article was created with and commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund.