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A Very Unusual Road Trip Looking for Methane in Tuscany

James holding the FLIR camera case in front of his van

A Very Unusual Road Trip Looking for Methane in Tuscany

James holding the FLIR camera case in front of his van
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When we set out to travel around Italy, we left Rick Steves and Lonely Planet at home. This was going to be an ‘off-the-off-the’ beaten path road trip through the Italian countryside. Sadly, there would be no fine wine, trips to vineyards, cooking classes, restaurants, museums, or city tours. We’d survive mostly on Udon noodles, potatoes, and other provisions we bought at our local grocery store. I plotted a route that followed the Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline, the main artery of Italy’s gas network, south and then returned north via the eastern coastal highway past Italy’s offshore oil and gas production. We would spend our final days of the trip in the north visiting Italy’s underground gas storage facilities, the lungs of the system.

Our two weeks in Tuscany were a blur. At times, I lost track of what day it was and where we were. I had planned a detailed itinerary and I pre-programmed each day’s driving directions into Google Maps. To see all the ‘sites’, we had to be efficient. We woke up with the sun, ate breakfast, dumped the greywater, disconnected the propane, and hit the road. We drove past the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Mount Vesuvius, and Lake Como. Venice, Milan, Bologna, Naples, and Rome were just road signs on the highway. During the entire trip, we made one detour, a one-hour stroll through the narrow, stone streets of the old town in Bari, where my great grandfather was born. No one in my immediate family had returned since he had emigrated to the United States as a young child in the 1880s.

Florence was a ghost town. We needed a break from a long couple of days on the road, so we rolled the van up to a parking spot on a busy street along the Arno, a few blocks away from the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s famous market street bridge. Gone were the throngs of tourists encircling the Duomo. The Ufitzi was closed. A 10:00PM curfew blanketed the city, but even by 8:00PM the only people on the streets were food delivery guys on bikes.

 

 

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We walked around in search of food for an hour and stumbled through the doors of the first open restaurant we found, only to be handed the menu with a tacky American dinner theme. Not wanting to disappoint the gracious owners who likely had few customers that evening, and too hungry to search another hour for something more traditional, we ordered a chicken sandwich and pastrami on rye with sweet potato fries. They even sent us packing with a complimentary stack of pancakes, covered with honey, Nutella, and chocolate chips. We got our food and went on our way.

From Florence to Basilicata, we had planned to stop every 100 miles or so at facilities known as compressor stations. Like little beating hearts, compressor stations keep the gas pumping through the pipelines at a constant pressure. These are large facilities that are vital to the transmission of natural gas, and they are known for being leaky. I figured, if I am going to find methane emissions in Italy, those were good targets.

As I walked up to a site twenty minutes south of Florence, it dawned on me: I’m pretty sure I am the only person who has visited the Tuscan hills in search of methane. Most people go for the scenery, the food, and the wine. This compressor station sat in a majestic field, surrounded by vineyards and mountains. I took a moment to look around and enjoy the cool crisp air under the bright, warm Tuscan sun. It was refreshing. I snapped a few photos of the hills and our van perched under an old oak tree amidst the vineyards to capture the moment, then I sent them to my family back home. Ten minutes later, I found methane venting from a pipe coming out of the main compressor station building. It killed my buzz. The famous Sangiovese grapes that define Chianti wine were being doused in hydrocarbons. On our way out of Tuscany we stopped at a gas station to refuel. They were selling a three-bottle wine package for 10 euros. We bought it and continued driving south – we figured, hey, at least its Tuscan.

What's next?

What's next?