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Cleaning Up the Gulf Oil Spill: Energy Sector Relies on Satellite Technology

By | August 1, 2010

      The Deepwater Horizon and other specialized vessels like her are designed to operate in waters more than a mile deep and can drill wells more than five miles into the Earth’s crust. Energy companies have developed the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico throughout the last 50 years, but those reservoirs of hydrocarbons are rapidly being depleted, forcing the energy sector to look elsewhere. With the East and West Coasts of the United States closed to drilling, energy companies have been forced to push exploration beyond the edge of the Continental Shelf while at the same time pushing the boundaries of technology in order to explore and produce oil from previously unheard of depths.

      Satellite technology has played a major role in the development of ultra-deep water energy projects in the world’s oceans. Drilling and production facilities often are 50 miles, or more, from land, making them impossible to reach with traditional wireless or microwave communications. Stabilized VSAT platforms are the de facto communication standard for drill ships and semi-submersible rigs, providing the necessary bandwidth companies need to drill, complete, and operate these remote wells. And satellite technology, which has proven invaluable to relief workers after hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, again is making a significant positive impact by interconnecting a myriad of government agencies with support vessels, clean-up workers and scientists involved in the massive spill from the Macondo Well.

      Several aspects make the cleanup a daunting task: the sheer number of government agencies involved, most of the activities are done afloat and the threat of hurricanes. Imagine building a communication infrastructure to support a floating city that stretches roughly 100 miles. Under the command of retired Adm. Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard is coordinating a response that includes the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Departments of State and Homeland Security, and two Department of Interior bureaus — Fish & Wildlife Service and the renamed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service). Add to the mix agencies from state governments bordering the Gulf of Mexico, oil field service companies and contractors.


      Capping the Well

      The first task in the relief effort has been capping the Macondo Well. A vivid image of oil gushing from a subsea pipe into the water has become the face of this disaster to millions of people around the world. Those images were taken by cameras in remotely operated vehicles (ROV) orbiting near the well site and uplinked back to the shore.

      CapRock is one of several companies bringing back streaming video from ROVs at the Macondo well site. Rohit Chhabra, director of product management and marketing, CapRock, says: “Divers often get asked questions about what they are seeing underwater such as, ‘How large is the hole? How much fluid is leaking?’ These questions are tough to verbally answer. With CapRock’s remote video streaming, stakeholders can look at subsea structures and instantly see for themselves the situation. This results in more informed decisions and quicker problem resolution.” “In this case, the well is far too deep to send down divers, and ROVs must be used instead. The video feed becomes the eyes for the engineers on the surface who are maneuvering tools and equipment on the seabed. In addition to providing live video to vessels on the surface, our streaming service delivers real-time video from subsea structures and remote facilities to desktops anywhere in the world. This allows our clients to see into critical off-site operations without ever leaving their offices.”

      Monitoring the Spill

      Concurrent with efforts to cap the well, the spilled oil is being tracked with the help of satellite technology. Knowing the location of the spreading crude helps commanders make better decisions regarding where to deploy containment booms in an effort to halt the encroachment of the oil into marshes, wetlands and other sensitive areas.

      In addition to providing live video to vessels on the surface, our streaming service delivers real-time video from subsea structures and remote facilities to desktops anywhere in the world. This allows our clients to see into critical off-site operations without ever leaving their offices.
      — Chhabra, CapRock

      NOAA immediately began making daily trajectory forecasts as to the oil’s expected whereabouts 24-, 48-, and 72-hours in the future. “NOAA is utilizing imagery from multiple agencies,” says an agency employee who requested anonymity. “We are using all of the assets from our unified command.”

      The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a Department of Defense combat support agency and member of the National Intelligence Community, develops imagery and map-based intelligence solutions for U.S. national defense, homeland security and safety of navigation. By giving customers ready access to geospatial intelligence, NGA provides support to civilian and military leaders and contributes to the state of readiness of U.S. military forces. NGA also contributes to humanitarian efforts, such as tracking floods and disaster support, and to peacekeeping.

      While the NGA gathers its own imagery data, information collected by GeoEye, a private company which operates a constellation of three imaging satellites in polar orbit 423 miles above the Earth and can view the same spot on Earth every day. The NGA is GeoEye’s single largest customer for images collected by the companies satellites, but GeoEye’s imagery is unclassified, so it can be shared with allies and coalition partners, the news media and the public. Mark Brender, GeoEye’s vice president of communications, says: “On April 20th, when the spill occurred, we tasked our satellites to begin collecting images over the Gulf and the shorelines of the states that border the Gulf. This allowed us to get a good ‘before picture.’ So far, we have collected images from over 115 square kilometers of the Gulf. These images can be used to map and monitor the movement of the oil on the water’s surface and also to spot impact areas. And, of course, they can also be used for litigation.”

      One of GeoEye’s partners is Google, which makes satellite imagery available to people around the world via Google Earth and Google Maps. Kate Hurowitz, manager, global communications and public affairs for Google, says, “Whenever possible, Google’s Crisis Response team works with GeoEye and other imagery partners, to obtain updated images and then make the information available through our mapping tools to reach as many people as possible. We’ve received feedback from responders that they find the imagery very helpful. Images are archived so that anyone can view different images taken over time and make comparisons. This has been helpful in tracking the spread of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, people can layer information on top of Google Earth and Maps, showing such things as areas which have been closed to fishing or where oil has reached shore. These tools help make the information accessible to people all over the world.”

      Tracking the spread of the oil spill is also being done with the aid of buoys, known as drifters. MetOcean, an Iridium partner, provides several types of buoys specifically designed to relay information via satellite. The buoys are deployed by ship or by air and relay essential scientific data for evaluation. In addition to GPS location, from which speed and heading can be deduced, air pressure, salinity, wind speed and direction can be gathered. 

      Remediation and Cleanup

      Broadband connectivity is an essential need in today’s business climate, and getting anything done without access to e-mail and Internet connectivity is a challenge. Making disparate networks communicate with one another begins with bandwidth. From the beaches of barrier islands where scientists set up camps, to an armada of vessels across the Gulf, to floating barges which are being used as command vessels and quarters for thousands of workers, satellite antennas sprang up, many of them provided by Breaux Bridge, La.-based, Data Technology Solutions. The company provides a range of satellite and radio solutions for both offshore and land applications.

      Earlier this year Data Technology Solutions launched a new broadband service using an iDirect Evolution hub combined with 60-centimeter stabilized marine antennas. Antenna and network equipment are integrated into an air conditioned skid featuring an extremely small footprint. Its compact size allows the skid to be placed on vessels previous considered too small for a stabilized VSAT antenna. Since the skid is a stand-alone design, no welding is required, further simplifying installation. The skids even can be moved from one vessel to another while on the water.

      The sheer size of the spill makes coordinating vessel activity a challenge. Without street signs and defined locations to meet, open water rendezvous are a more challenging, particularly when multiple vessels are all under way. CapRock’s AssetTrax is a visual aid which allows fleet operators to see the discreet location of each of their ships or rigs within seconds. GPS location data is brought back over a satellite link and displayed on a mapping application which can be viewed over the Internet. This allows fleet managers to dispatch the nearest vessel and give accurate information regarding the time to reach the final destination. 

      Effects on Satellite Sector

      The blow out of the Macondo Well and resulting oil spill likely will have an impact on the satellite sector for years to come. President Obama has placed a moratorium on deep water drilling which recently has been overturned by a federal judge. Do not expect the fight to end soon. Should the moratorium be resurrected, look for drilling rigs and ships to be quickly moved out of the Gulf to other oil basins around the world, notably West Africa and Brazil. Drilling rigs capable of drilling in ultra-deep water command a day rate of $750,000 per day, and their owners will not allow them to sit idle for long. Discussions between rig owners and oil companies are underway right now, and the decision to reposition them will likely be made well before anything about the presidential moratorium is resolved in the courts. Mobilizing these large rigs from the Gulf of Mexico to another continent will cost tens of millions of dollars when direct costs are added to the lost opportunity costs during the several months it takes to tow them across the ocean. Once on station in their new location they likely will remain there for many years.

      Deepwater rigs generally house 150 workers or more, and the demand for satellite bandwidth is high. As the rigs are moved away from U.S. waters, they will require bandwidth on different satellites. The rig shifts also will favor larger satellite service providers, particularly in Brazil, where the cost of doing business is high. Onerous import duties, combined with the expense of securing a license makes it more difficult to do business in Africa and Brazil compared to the Gulf of Mexico.

      Last, when these rigs leave U.S. waters, they will reduce the demand for associated services which are required to support drilling efforts. The resulting void will be felt by companies which provide food, fabrication, supplies, engineering and transportation to the drillers. All of these companies are consumers of satellite services in one fashion or another. The loss of deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will create a domino effect which will impact the entire satellite industry, from satellite operators to hardware manufacturers to service companies. The energy market has been relatively stable and a profitable venue for the satellite industry for the last several years, providing a welcome respite in a depressed economy. A tragic well blowout and the stroke of a presidential pen have the potential to change that.

      Greg Berlocher has been active in the satellite industry for twenty five years and is the President of
      Transcendent Global Networks LLC.

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