The potential for Earth observation to reduce risk in the Oil and Gas industry

The volume and variety of data gathered from Earth Observation (EO) satellites in orbit today has been increasing at a rapid pace; in 2019, the challenge for users is to attempt to make sense of it. Perhaps though it is not as daunting as it first seems. A new user of EO data doesn’t necessarily need to know which sensor it has come from. They shouldn’t need to apply various corrections in order to have access to surface reflectance data. In this new age of Space 4.0 we should only need to know that an image is available in the area we are working and that it will meet our expectations. These expectations, for example, could include the appropriate spatial resolution and cloud coverage. While Space 4.0 needs to be ‘…easily and readily accessible, and built on a foundation of excellence in science and technology – broadly and continuously over time’, so does the data that is delivered to the end user.

This data concept is known as ‘Analysis Ready Data’ (ARD). Having easily accessible ARD has benefits across a range of sectors, whether monitoring major weather events and the potential insurance implications of a flood or assessing the health and extents of the world’s forests. New applications are being developed today that rely upon this steady stream of unbiased data. The energy sector is no different. EO data has been used by Oil and Gas companies to aid exploration activities for many years and is one of the more mature sectors. EO data has been used within the industry to add value and contextual information to Oil and Gas operations, aiding risk mitigation and helping make informed yet meaningful decisions. 

SkySat Image - Coal transforms, Inner Mongolia ©2019 Planet


It is estimated that 73% of all Oil and Gas projects experience delays and 64% experience cost overruns. While there are a multitude of reasons for these delays and overruns, being able to reduce them can lead to significant savings. Operational costs also have to be monitored carefully, making sure that inspections are properly prioritized; using fresh information can help with this. While EO data (often combined with other data within a GIS environment) cannot possibly solve every problem, it can provide information that can be used to mitigate risk and reduce the threat of some project overruns. EO data has in the past been used in ‘pockets or silos’ across an organization, for example, to help a Geologist to model lithology. There are many components to a project to consider though. A typical Oil and Gas project can be broken down into lifecycle stages which can include:

  • Pre-License
  • Exploration
  • Development
  • Production
  • Decommissioning

The lifecycle of a well, for example can span many years. The planning phase can often last more than 1 year. Well placement needs careful cross domain planning expertise and EO can be a useful component providing up to date surface information. Once planning is completed, wells can be drilled in 2-3 weeks and operational after only a few days going onto produce for several years or even decades. At several stages including, decommissioning, care is taken to restore the land to its previous condition. EO data here provides highly valuable data to quantify the restorative efforts.  Further information is shown in the following video

There are clear benefits to this same data being shared with other departments across the lifecycle within an organization, aiding other applications such as planning seismic acquisition logistics and/or modelling a project’s impact on the environment. 

EO can help in adding vital layers of contextual data to support Environmental Impact Assessments and to provide extents and health metrics about vegetation. Or, as simple as having baseline images before and after events, such as pipeline encroachment which can to help visualize changes/impacts. This information can offer a guide to any remedial work that may need to be undertaken. EO data can support several different business units, but has traditionally been seen as a more stand along data source used for one purpose only. It is possible that other departments and at senior management level people are not even aware of the presence of this data. However, by deriving a set of products, such as those suggested by the EO4OG project, and making them available on a central, easily accessible system, it allows the potential for EO to become better utilized across the organization. These products include focused maps addresses the following challenge categories faced by both onshore and offshore operations. 

With all the data available we are not just relying on an image; we have more choice.


Access to EO data shouldn’t be the barrier it once was. Search and discovery of data, as well as pre-processing imagery, can significantly lengthen the time it takes to make data driven decisions EarthCache solves this problem. If data pipelines can be built over key operational areas, then the data supply chains can be significantly shortened. Machine to machine (M2M) data delivery creates this opportunity. 

The cost for the search and discovery of EO can be a massive barrier to a user. If you are monitoring a pipeline, for example, then the time you might spend looking for data is much better spent analyzing data. Then, using this analysis to decide whether any encroachment requires a field visit, potentially diverting resources immediately or whether the decision to send a team in could be delayed until the next image or report is available. This is all about making smarter, more informed decisions in the shortest possible time with the cost efficiency of obtaining the most appropriate data.    

SkySat Image - Athabasca Region, Alberta, ©2019 Planet


If shortening the supply chains is the first step, then being able to integrate data feeds into your own workflows/methods/systems is the second. The potential to use reliable RESTful APIs unlocks the potential for the data to be internally processed on arrival. The velocity of data today enables systems to be built around fast timely delivery, enabling a decision to be made faster.

If two of the major reasons for overruns and delays in the Oil and Gas industry are Project Development and Project Planning then access to high velocity EO data can aid mitigation of some of the project risks. Whether it is foreseen (access to sites or pipeline routing) or an unforeseen, potentially catastrophic, event (the impact of a spill or extreme weather event) the reliability and timeliness of data derived from satellite imagery has the potential to be highly valuable information.   


It could be argued that the illusion of choice has previously hindered the potential to develop remote sensing applications. You may have needed to wait many months for a cloud free image. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data wasn’t as easily available and didn’t offer the regularity of coverage that Sentinel 1 a/b does today. The price of EO data may have been restrictive. You may have needed to spend significant time finding this all out.

Today, some satellite operators are able to acquire more than one optical image data every day, and this increases the potential for a useful image in your area of interest, although clouds will still remain an issue. EarthCache gives access to all this data via a virtual constellation, giving a much broader choice of EO data. Pipelines can now be built to use a combination of both optical and SAR data that, due to the periodicity of the sensors, can be relied upon to deliver frequent images. The cost of imagery is falling, EarthCache lets you control data budgets better by setting up parameters that only accept the conditions you set. Today the illusion of choice has migrated to actual choice. 


In this post I have looked at the increasing impact EO data can have on the lifecycle in Oil and Gas operations. With a large virtual constellation of EO data available in near real-time at your fingertips, and by building bespoke M2M workflows, information can flow seamlessly into your organization. Planning a well site can take up to 18 months, building an EO pipeline to support an operation can take less than 18 minutes.\


Andrew Cutts is a Geospatial freelancer based in West Sussex, UK. He has almost 20 years industry experience across several sectors. He holds a degree in Geography and a Masters in GIS. Andrew consults for clients worldwide and gives training in Geospatial technology and Python. Andrew writes extensively on EO and GIS on his website He is the co-host of the award winning #scenefromabove podcast, he was listed in the Carto top 50 twitter accounts to follow in 2019 and you can find him there:

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