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Space Watch Saves Lives and Costs (Pipeline Magazine Article)

Pleiades satellite image of an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico

A Pleiades satellite image of an oil rig explosion "Permanent Abkatun" in the Gulf of Mexico

Orbiting hundreds of kilometres above our heads, satellite constellations now have the imaging and processing capacity to capture any point on earth, every day. With this extensive capability they are, amongst other applications, monitoring a vast range of oil and gas related activities around the world. 

From the moment hydrocarbons are discovered to the day decommissioning is complete, isolated oil and gas facilities require constant monitoring. When situated in difficult to reach or hostile parts of the globe, these facilities are vulnerable to human interference and have the potential to significantly impact the local environment. Observations made using satellites allow energy companies to monitor progress from the earliest stages of development and throughout the facilities’ operational lifecycle, with the added benefit of having the visibility to react quickly to any emergency situation.

Oil and gas operators require specific, interpreted and cost-effective information related to operational or environmental changes in order to organise an effective response to any potential issue. Satellite derived intelligence has therefore become a vital risk management tool, particularly with the latest generation of satellites offering very high-resolution images with daily revisit capability.

Remote monitoring: satellite technologies

Over the past two of decades, satellite technology has improved considerably, with key parameters such as image resolution now down to at least 50 centimetres. In this period there has also been a dramatic reduction in the time required between the raw image being captured by the satellite and the processed image being delivered to a client. Processing, which used to take weeks or months in the 1990s, now takes literally minutes. As satellite and IT technology improves, the range of applications are also increasing accordingly. Today, for example, imagery which delves below the surface of the ocean, offering sight up to around 100 feet (30 metres) in clear water, is readily available and is a valuable tool for the assessment of water depth and mapping of habitats.

These improvements are due to providers, such as Airbus Defence and Space, constantly investing in new satellites and new technology. New constellations of satellites are continually offering improved resolution, greater programming responsiveness and the ability to acquire a greater volume of images in a given period (in monoscopic or stereoscopic mode).

Many earth observation satellite companies also have years of imagery on file, with some suppliers’ archive data stretching back three decades. Having access to such a wealth of information allows analysts to compare and contrast current environments with those of the past, illustrating the story of how man-made or natural changes have affected an area of interest. Before instigating exploration activity in an area, such as starting a seismic acquisition campaign or drilling activity, it’s beneficial to have baseline data relating to any previous activity in the area or of any existing pollution from a regulatory and corporate responsibility standpoint. For most interpretation projects, archive imagery a few months old will offer a sufficient and cost- effective tool for mapping roads, infrastructure, land-cover and for generating digital elevation models (DEMs) to assist with environmental and planning applications.

Incident crisis response

At the other end of the requirement spectrum, the latest satellite technology allows customers to immediately task a satellite in order to rapidly capture images of an emergency situation in any location around the globe. This fast reaction capability allows companies to initiate critical emergency action plans when dealing with situations that present people, assets or the environment with a clear and present danger.

Common security concerns vary from terrorist attacks to the illegal tapping of pipelines and since oil and gas operations are increasingly operating in areas with security concerns, geospatial information provides a unique tool to monitor assets. For example, when fighting by militia groups in and around Tripoli in Libya resulted in oil storage tanks being hit, the resulting fire caused the facility to burn out of control. A fast response was therefore needed to establish the situation occurring on the ground. Airbus Defence and Space’s Instant Tasking Service was initiated through the GeoStore online portal and the Pléiades satellite was tasked to provide high-resolution imagery of the affected area. Once the satellite passed over the chosen location and acquired the required imagery, the processed full high-resolution, near real-time images were available for download in just 90 minutes.

In another example, a satellite company received a request to obtain satellite images of 11 different natural gas pumping stations strung out along the Transco pipeline between eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the East Coast USA. Eleven point targets were submitted on a Friday and 10 of the 11 areas were collected and validated on the following Monday morning – highlighting the speed with which data can be gathered and presented to client companies in a usable form in order to make intelligence-led decisions.

TerraSAR-X acquisition - Gulf of Mexico, US
TerraSAR-X acquisition – Gulf of Mexico, United States

Reducing footprint, cutting costs

To respond to the requirements of the oil and gas sector and provide greater levels of intelligence, satellite operators have combined emergency response satellite services with access to experts who specialise in image ordering, interpretation and analysis. These services support the client organisation with an effective response when facing an offshore or onshore incident.

Offshore oil spills, for example, can impact coastlines and fragile marine ecosystems. Oil spills from offshore platforms, support vessels or ruptured pipelines can be difficult to track using traditional means, particularly those affected by poor weather conditions – not least hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and tropical storms across South-East Asia. The severity and impact of a spill can be minimised if identified early. Therefore, long term routine monitoring from satellites, where imagery is acquired at set intervals, can help to quickly identify potential risk factors, the presence of a spill, data on sea conditions, as well as the possible source of the leak.

Pleiades satellite image of Tripoli, Libya
Instant Tasking, Pleiades satellite image – Tripoli, Libya

In the offshore environment oil slicks are most commonly spotted using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery, which enables slicks to be clearly identified by analysing oil’s wave dampening effect on the water’s surface. Satellite radar data has various imaging modes suitable for monitoring across wide swaths of land or sea and is independent from weather conditions, such as cloud coverage. The all-weather capability of radar systems can also significantly reduce the response time for gaining information in cases where events occur during night or under cloudy conditions.

Automated change detection

SPOT 6 and 7 satellites, with the capability to acquire imagery at high resolution, but also over large areas, are key assets when dealing with detection of change related to oil and gas exploration and production. These satellites have the capacity to acquire imagery covering up to 6 million km2 per day, offering an imaging swath of 60 km at a resolution of 1.5m.

With the ability to highlight and classify changes accurately and on a regular basis, change detection techniques offer an efficient tool to assist updating existing maps, but also as a basis for reliable alerts on land-cover, well pad and other infrastructure changes and to monitor facilities more generally over time. This approach speeds up the analysis process, reducing the need to spend time and resources, interpreting imagery and other data. Satellite tasking teams can provide support for each tasking request, proposing tasking plans, validating acquisitions and providing regular updates. Within hours of being acquired, images are processed and algorithms can be instigated to evaluate the imagery.

Monitoring surface changes

Exploration and drilling in areas prone to surface movement requires careful monitoring. A number of natural and man-made events can alter surface morphology and impact infrastructure. Whether the region is susceptible to volcanic or earthquake activity, or suffers from subsidence caused by oil and gas extraction, roads may crack and pipelines and power cables may be damaged. By using space-based monitoring and employing interferometric techniques based on radar satellites such as the TerraSAR-X, change can be detected and quantified down to just a few millimetres, allowing appropriate mitigation measures to be put in place.

In conclusion, having access to rapidly acquired data provides analysts with a regular stream of vital, actionable information when managing facilities impacted by any number of man-made or natural events. Advances in satellite technology in terms of image resolution, accuracy and agility, combined with innovative approaches to processing and analysis, are making an increasingly valuable contribution to the datasets in the oil and gas sector; reducing costs and improving safety. Due to the agility and acquisition capacity of the latest satellite technology, imagery can be acquired rapidly in the event of an emergency situation, together with the frequent capture of information for ongoing monitoring. These services are further augmented by extensive archives that provide useful baseline information for the majority of the Earth’s surface. In turn, advanced analytics continues to cut the time needed to interpret the vast volume of information gathered. Ultimately, this information and analysis increases the efficiency of operational activities and contributes to a reduction in potential risk to the environment and personnel.

Read this article in Pipeline Magazine

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