Screenshot of Pittsburgh methane map.

Pittsburgh has made strides to become more environmentally friendly and efficient, thanks to the efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The New York-based nonprofit released the results of a project that used Google Street View cars to map and measure methane gas leaks throughout Pittsburgh. In cooperation with Peoples Natural Gas and Carnegie Mellon University, the research showed the potential environmental, economic and public health risks associated with the city’s aging underground gas infrastructure.

EDF spent fives months mapping Downtown, the Hill District, Lawrenceville, Oakland and Highland Park using Google Street View mapping cars, each equipped with a tube running from the front bumper to a methane analyzer in the trunk. As the car drove, the analyzer took readings every second and uploaded the data to the cloud.

“These kinds of technologies allow you to collect data in ways that weren’t possible before, and to do it efficiently, cost-effectively and easily,” says Steve Hamburg, chief scientist for Environmental Defense Fund.

The project showed a rate of one leak indication for every two miles, an average Hamburg calls “fairly high.” The rate was comparable to other older cities that also underwent methane mapping, including Boston and Staten Island.

The information can now be viewed on EDF’s website, where users can click on an interactive map to see where leaks were found. It also features color-coded dots indicating the frequency of leaks in certain areas.

In addition, a CMU team used the Google cars to map Homewood, Point Breeze, Shadyside, South Side and Riverview Park. Information gathered on those areas should become public within a few months.

The project is part of a series EDF launched in 2012 to address methane leaks at local levels. Though the leaks pose minimal safety risks if untreated, methane—the main ingredient in natural gas—contributes to the increase of greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. Compared to other harmful gasses, methane is considered especially harmful because of its ability to absorb and retain heat from the sun.

The leaks also impact Peoples Natural Gas, as it represents a waste of valuable resources.

Hamburg says that the project was necessary given the city’s outdated gas infrastructure. Nearly half of Pittsburgh’s pipes are more than 50 years old and are made of cast iron, a material meant to contain manufactured gas, not natural gas. Peoples would need to replace the cast iron pipes with plastic pipes. Data derived from the project will enable them to determine which sections of piping to change first based on the extremity of the leaks.

Hamburg says the project demonstrates how industries were able to work together to achieve their respective goals.

“It showed the real power of collaboration and that progress can be made in a way that’s about environment, safety and jobs altogether, not in opposition,” says Hamburg.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.