Energy Production Fuels Demand for Space-based Imagery

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SAN FRANCISCO — The recent embrace of techniques that enable companies to extract oil and natural gas from shale formations buried more than a kilometer underground has created a boom in U.S. energy production and additional demand for space-based imagery and analysis.

“Oil and gas companies working in the United States to extract energy from shale are dealing with a continuously changing landscape,” said JacekGrodecki, GeoEye’s senior director for research and development. Frequently updated satellite imagery delivered through the web services, such as GeoEye’sEyeQ, enables companies to “keep an eye on the quickly changing terrain.” Through EyeQ, Herndon, Va.-based GeoEye provides organizations with satellite imagery on demand, enabling employees to obtain, share and search for data.

Companies extracting oil and gas from shale also are buying satellite data to help them solve logistics problems, said Bud Pope, co-founder and president of Spatial Energy LLC, a digital imagery and services firm based in Boulder, Colo. Although oil and gas companies initially viewed satellite imagery primarily as a tool to help engineers identify geologic features that provide clues to the location of underground fuel reserves, companies now rely heavily on space-based data to assist them throughout the life cycle of oil and gas fields. “The industry uses imagery to determine the most suitable drill sites based on ground conditions, monitor oil exploration and production, plan pipeline development and monitor pipeline integrity and compliance,” Grodecki said in a May 16 email.

“Overseas, satellite imagery is still used extensively for exploration,” said Jim Ellis, founder and principal of Ellis GeoSpatial, an imaging and mapping services firm based in Walnut Creek, Calif. In the United States, however, energy companies probably spend more money buying remote sensing data to aide in logistics than in exploration, he added.

Typically, oil and gas companies obtain their first glimpse of a new area with data from the U.S. government’s Landsat Earth observing satellites. Because Landsat covers the globe and provides imagery free of charge, it’s a good place to start any project, Ellis said.

Once companies are ready to zoom in on specific areas, they buy commercial, high-resolution imagery from firms such as DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., GeoEye and Europe’s Astrium Services. “This data allows companies to do desktop studies as opposed to sending a lot of people out into the field,” Pope said. “It really does improve efficiency when engineers can remain at their desks and decide where to place drill rigs or pipelines.”

Oil and gas companies obtain additional information on potential drilling sites around the world with data from aerial and space-based radars. While that information is similar to data acquired by optical sensors, radars have the added advantage of operating at night and in cloudy conditions. In addition, radars can be used to detect extremely subtle changes in the Earth’s surface, changes that can be measured in centimeters or even millimeters, Pope said. In enhanced oil field recovery, where companies inject gas or chemicals inside wells to increase the amount of crude oil they can recover, radars are used to monitor upheaval, subsidence or any displacement of the Earth’s surface.

Energy companies also use digital elevation models that draw on space-based or airborne observations to obtain detailed information on land cover and terrain features. Engineers rely on digital elevation model data to help them decide where to establish drilling rigs, how to mitigate water runoff problems and whether a certain slope is too steep for trucks carrying heavy equipment, Pope said. That data also helps engineers plan the most efficient ways to conduct the seismic surveys that companies use to map subsurface geology and search for underground deposits of oil and natural gas, Ellis said.

In recent years, companies have relied heavily on satellite imagery to monitor the environmental impact of their operations. Around the world, oil and gas companies typically obtain multiyear licenses to drill in specific areas. At the end of the license period, which often extends for decades, companies are required to relinquish the land and provide information on how the land was modified, Ellis said. Companies can use satellite imagery to map and track changes in the size of wetlands, grasslands and other types of land cover. That information can be used to demonstrate compliance with cap-and-trade rules designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Grodecki said.

Now that anyone with a computer can gain access to satellite imagery of a specific drilling site, companies are more keenly aware than ever of the need to conduct continuous environmental monitoring of their operations. “People around the wells know there is an oil operation nearby,” Ellis said. “They can see what’s happening there with Google Earth or Bing Maps.”

Environmental monitoring also can offer long-term cost savings. “If a company does not mess up the wetlands and if it takes care of archaeological sites on the property, it can reduce overall costs,” Ellis said. Environmental monitoring doesn’t add much cost to a project up-front and can save companies “a lot of money later on,” he added.

What’s more, companies often can use the same imagery acquired for exploration or logistics tasks to aide in environmental monitoring. “Exploration budgets are enormous and environmental monitoring budgets are not as big,” Pope said. “Within an enterprise, the environmental group can use data acquired by the exploration group.” That data sharing has been made possible by cloud-based data centers capable of storing enormous imagery files and high-speed Internet links capable of transmitting those files, Pope added.