The near-term goal is “giving utilities a tool to be able to rank the size of their leaks and make cost-effective repairs,” he added. “This is a scientifically sound tool that brings about really rapid and low-cost ability to find the largest leaks so they can be targeted for replacement.” In fact, he said, the team has partnered with a New Jersey utility, which has used its data to make about $900 million worth of pipeline repairs and replacements.

The Environmental Defense Fund has made some publicly available leak maps for certain cities using the project’s findings. But von Fischer cautioned that these results shouldn’t cause city residents undue alarm. From a public health perspective, he said, most methane leaks are considered safe — they’re not a health hazard or an explosion risk. In outdoor spaces, where the gas is allowed to seep up through the ground and straight into the atmosphere, leaks are generally considered low-risk.

But methane leaks are wasted resources, from an economic point of view, von Fischer said. And from an environmental perspective, methane leaks can be a big problem for the climate. Methane is believed to be up to 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but its global sources and emission rates are much less well quantified.

In addition to natural gas pipeline leaks, methane is leaked from oil and gas drilling operations and emitted from landfills and livestock farms, as well as from natural sources such as wetlands. Thawing permafrost is also proving to be a major source of global methane emissions. So pinpointing the human-caused sources of methane and finding ways to reduce them can be a major practical way to combat climate change.

“I think that environmental issues are inherently multifaceted — they arise from human use of technology, they arise from social and economic factors, and they arise within a political and legal framework,” von Fischer said. “It’s been fascinating for me to be on the technological and science side, but partnering with people both on the industry side and on the environmentalist side to help bring about resolutions to those issues.”