Minimising the environmental impact of Arctic exploration
The search for hydrocarbons in the Arctic region is controversial. The environment is fragile, ice coverage is decreasing and fears of oil production in such frontier locations are shaping how oil companies and environmental NGOs are reacting to the shifting landscape. While significant hydrocarbon resources are thought to lie beneath the Arctic seafloor, the region presents one of the most challenging locations for oil and gas exploration. The technical difficulties of working in this remote area and the associated risks and harsh conditions are coupled with environmental concerns for the sensitive habitat and geo-political uncertainty.
Falling oil prices have resulted in a general scaling back of activity in the Arctic region. In order for any future exploration, development and production to be conducted responsibly, the latest technologies will need to be deployed to minimise disturbance to the environment and local populations. The application of observational data acquired by satellites and associated products and services, specifically designed for these conditions, are key tools to assist in addressing these environmental concerns and technical challenges.
Exploration has been ongoing in the Arctic since the 1970s, with most activity seen in Alaska and Greenland. Since these early days, sea ice has presented a significant hazard to offshore operations including ship traffic and offshore facilities. One of the most significant early applications of remote sensing in the Arctic region was the monitoring of sea ice. By monitoring sea ice conditions and tracking the position of icebergs, hazardous areas can be avoided or mitigation strategies can be put in place.
Sea ice monitoring brings together a range of observation techniques including in-situ observations. Remote sensing has historically been achieved through using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology from fixed wing aircraft, although more recently this has largely transitioned to satellite-based SAR, as it offers a wider choice of suitable sensors and acquisition advantages. Active radar sensors are well suited to arctic conditions as they have the ability to acquire data independent of lighting and cloud cover. The Airbus Defence and Space satellite constellation comprises both optical and radar sensors and offers the technology to support a reduction in environmental impact throughout the oil and gas production lifecycle in a number of ways.
Satellite images to monitor change
Firstly, an extensive imagery archive enables the determination of environmental baseline conditions before exploration and the identification of environmentally vulnerable locations, which can assist with the development of an effective spill response plan. The establishment of baseline conditions is also important for distinguishing between those impacts triggered by exploration and those caused by other sources.
Secondly, the potential to regularly acquire new imagery datasets allows the detection of changes, which have occurred due to the operation of a site. By utilising the frequent revisit times and prompt delivery of processed datasets from the satellite constellation, any surface impact such as an oil spill can be identified and responded to rapidly.
Mapping offshore oil seeps from space
Over the last 20 years Airbus Defence and Space has developed a continually updated worldwide database of offshore natural oil slicks (Global Seeps) based on the interpretation of satellite radar data. This database allows the presence of a working hydrocarbon system to be established, and helps target surveys such as seismic acquisition, potentially reducing the level of vessel activity. Areas covered in and around the Arctic region include the Barents, Kara, Bering and Chukchi Seas, offshore Greenland including Baffin Bay and Newfoundland and Labrador. When exploration is initiated in a frontier area it is important to understand the location and extent of natural oil seeps in order to be able to rapidly differentiate any spill related to exploration and production, by establishing baseline oil presence on the sea surface.
Safer, more effective ice charting
With the use of the TerraSAR-X satellite, Airbus Defence and Space has been involved with sea ice charting in Arctic waters to reduce the risk of infrastructure damage during drilling activities and to production facilities. In a recent project, the requirement was to provide near-real-time delivery of satellite imagery (down to 15 minutes of acquisition) in order to ensure up-to- date intelligence in an area with quickly changing sea ice conditions. Space-borne remote sensing allows ice charting and the ability to classify information on different ice types while documenting temporal or time-related change. Increasingly, semi-automatic approaches are being employed to allow a rapid detection of icebergs in order to assure the safe operation of offshore production installations. From space-borne sensors ice can be detected in various physical states but depending on the target and the application, a range of acquisition parameters need to be considered in order to achieve the required derived product. Information on sea ice topography is also important in order to determine navigation constraints for vessels operating in the Arctic Sea. Furthermore, ice ridging is a risk for infrastructure located in the arctic regions (e.g. oil platforms and pipelines). The determination of ice ridges using cloud and light independent radar data has been demonstrated and under certain circumstances stereo photogrammetric processing of optical data can be considered.
The challenges of onshore Arctic development
Any onshore development in the Arctic including facilities, pipelines and roads or other related infrastructure requires considered planning to minimise potential environmental impacts during construction and operation. Both optical and radar imagery, together with derived elevation models, can contribute to this planning process by developing an understanding of surface and terrain conditions. Following construction the partial thawing of permafrost can result in ice beneath the ground surface becoming unstable, resulting in cavities and surface subsidence. Any infrastructure mounted on this surface can be affected by this subsidence. It’s possible to detect these effects at an early stage, enabling remediation planning, by the utilisation of radar and its capability to identify subsidence and tilting of infrastructure with a millimetric precision using interferometry, based on repeat coverage over the area of interest. The remote nature of the region means that satellite monitoring approaches can make a significant contribution.
The potential for oil spills in the Arctic is of great concern, due to the sensitive nature of the environment and complications of spill clean-up for areas with sea ice. However in the event of a spill, oil can be readily detected using radar satellite imagery due to the dampening effect that oil has on sea surface wave amplitude. Radar based monitoring of offshore oil production facilities for occurrence of oil spills is common practice and this approach can be applied to the Arctic environment. Nevertheless, some difficulties can be expected for the determination of oil spills if there is ice present around the infrastructure to be monitored. Several studies are currently ongoing in order to assess these difficulties and to develop appropriate technologies to overcome them.
Remote support throughout the project’s lifecycle
During the decommissioning phases of an onshore project, satellite data can assist in establishing areas requiring remediation and documenting remediation over time with regular image acquisition.
In order to minimise the environmental impact of oil and gas exploration inthe Arctic, the application of the latest technology is required throughout the workflow from exploration and development to production and decommissioning. Satellite imagery and associated derived products and services have a contribution to make in supporting planning, operational and incident response applications.
With a SPOT 6 mosaic (composite image), Airbus Defence and Space supported the first of the IceLegacy expeditions, a journey to highlight the importance of glaciers to the world. The first outing took the explorers to the main glacier of Spitsbergen Island in early August 2014. Explorers Børge Ousland from Norway and Frenchman Vincent Colliard crossed the 180km of the larger glacier on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen on skis.
On the www.icelegacy.com website, web users monitored the progress of the explorers. Texts and photos about each stage of the expedition were accessible from the SPOT 6 mosaic placed on a geo-referenced background. Airbus Defence and Space supplied this mosaic, consisting of six SPOT 6 images acquired in the winter of 2013.
The climb of the highest glacier in the Arctic began in August 2014 in the north of Spitsbergen Island. On the way, the two adventurers scaled the 1,713m Mount Newton, the highest mountain in the Svalbard archipelago. They left the glacier after covering 180km on skis in just eight days.
The goal of the IceLegacy project conceived by the two explorers is to promote efforts to combat glacier retreat. Their aim is to cross the world’s 20 largest glaciers on skis. This epic 10-year journey will take them from Russia to Alaska and from Patagonia to Pakistan.