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With New Tools, A Focus On Urban Methane Leaks

With New Tools, A Focus On Urban Methane Leaks 

Until recently, little was known about the extent of methane leaking from urban gas distribution pipes and its impact on global warming. But recent advances in detecting this potent greenhouse gas are pushing U.S. states to begin addressing this long-neglected problem.


Battered by storms and weakened with age, the natural gas distribution pipes of urban New Jersey have long been in need of repair. And for a long time, the state’s largest utility, Public Service and Enterprise Group (PSE&G), has wanted to replace them. The problem is that pipelines cost upwards of $1.3 million per mile, and the utility owns 4,330 miles of it. Replacing it all would cost at least $6 billion, not to mention decades of work.

In December 2014, however, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) approached the utility with a solution. Using new technology that can trace methane emissions back to their sources with great precision,

Jukka Isokoski
Workers install a natural gas pipeline.

researchers could home in on the highest-risk pipes, allowing the utility to prioritize repairs along the worst offending lines. EDF and its collaborators, from Colorado State University and Google Earth Outreach, then spent six months gathering data the utility could use.

The state’s Board of Public Utilities, which determines how much money PSE&G can raise from its customers and how it can spend it, had earlier rejected a request from the utility to raise $1.6 billion for 800 miles of new pipeline. But after the results of the monitoring effort were in, the utility narrowed its request to 510 miles of pipeline replacement, at a cost of $905 million over three years. Work on the project begins this month.

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