In Pittsburgh's neighborhoods, a natural gas leak every 2 miles




Within a block of Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville, there are three natural gas leaks that each day do as much damage to the atmosphere as driving a car between 2,100 miles and 19,000 miles.

Those leaks don’t pose a danger to the kids at Arsenal’s playground or to the homes appreciating in value in Pittsburgh’s hottest neighborhood. The damage is unseen and, until recently, unnoticed.

When a Google Street View car carrying a methane-sniffing sensor drove around half a dozen Pittsburgh neighborhoods over the past year, it picked up 200 indications of gas leaking from old Peoples Natural Gas pipelines.

Today, those spots are represented as yellow, orange and red dots on an interactive map of the city — the culmination of a partnership between Peoples, Google, and the New York-based nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund which has already mapped gas leaks in 10 other cities.

In Pittsburgh, as in several other cities with older infrastructure, there is a leak for every two miles surveyed.

The leaks aren’t considered a safety hazard because they aren’t causing gas to accumulate in an enclosed space, where it could cause an explosion. And while it might be possible to smell some of them, methane is not toxic and it isn’t hazardous to breathe at these concentrations.

The hazard here is methane’s contribution to climate change.

As with so many things, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Peoples took that step when the utility called the Environmental Defense Fund last year and asked the organization to help map its leaky pipes — pipes that the company is replacing to the tune of $3 billion over the next 20 years.

Peoples’ pipeline replacement plan is front-loaded in the City of Pittsburgh, where all bare metal pipes will be replaced within the next five to seven years. Peoples has already done a lot of work in Lawrenceville, putting plastic pipelines in areas just above Arsenal Park. The blocks around the park are on the schedule for next year.

Until recently, Peoples — like other utilities — approached leaks almost exclusively from a safety perspective and ranked its pipeline repair efforts accordingly. It didn’t try to calculate how much environmental damage is caused by methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, escaping into the atmosphere.

“To be honest, we never thought about it that way,” Morgan O'Brien, Peoples' CEO, said Tuesday. “So we became enlightened.”

The utility’s tools for detecting leaks and its expertise aren’t necessarily well suited for environmental impact analysis, the company said.

So in addition to working with EDF, Peoples has also engaged Carnegie Mellon University engineers in a parallel effort. That team — led by Allen Robinson, head of mechanical engineering and director of the newly-formed Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions at CMU — has been helping Peoples quantify methane leaks before and after pipeline replacement projects. It’s also working with the utility to adjust how Peoples prioritizes infrastructure efforts by making environmental considerations a part of the formula.

The CMU team has mapped areas of Homewood, Point Breeze, Shadyside, South Side and Riverview Park. Mr. Robinson said that information should be public within months.

That would add to the EDF map now available of the Golden Triangle, the Hill District, Lawrenceville, Oakland and Highland Park.

EDF’s map represents a snapshot in time. Peoples estimates that about half of the leaks confirmed from the data have already been repaired. Still, new ones could have appeared in the interim, cautioned Fred Krupp, EDF’s president who was in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to unveil the results.

Mr. Krupp praised Peoples for being a good corporate citizen and the state of Pennsylvania for moving forward with regulations that aim to quantify and restrict methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

“Of the global warming we’re experiencing today, methane causes a quarter of that,” Mr. Krupp said. “Look at what is possible when we turn away from the pointless debates and constructively work together.”

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

First Published November 15, 2016 5:10 PM

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