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The Use of Satellite Imagery in Oil Reserve Exploration - UrtheCast Blog

Theras A. Gordon Wood ‐ Company

The Use of Satellite Imagery in Oil Reserve Exploration

In the earliest days of oil exploration, the science was little more than the search for natural seepages of oil with the naked eye–find where it was already rising to the surface and drill until you struck the source of the leak.

The success rate of the seepage method was about 10%. At that rate, it would be difficult to impossible for oil producers to keep pace with the growing demand for oil.

Now, with the help of modern technology including satellite imagery, the success rate of oil exploration runs about 50%, according to energy producer BP.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)

Geologists still look for natural seepages, but are far more sophisticated today. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is one type of imagery that is being used to find oil seepages around the world. Older radar technology was only able to locate slicks one millimeter or thicker under ideal weather conditions. SAR is far more advanced, said Roger Mitchell, Program Development Vice President at Earth Satellite Corporation.

“RADARSAT (SAR) really detects changes in the surface tension caused by oil only a few microns thick and RADARSAT can detect as little as one-half to one liter of oil escaping per day.”

It is crucial to have such sensitive technology available because the places where oil is most frequently searched for (Asia, Canada, South America) are all often concealed by heavy cloud cover. These harsher conditions would interfere with any type of imagery that needed to visually identify an oil slick.


Another type of satellite is using gravitational forces to create a map that can be used to locate oil reserves. These forces can be used as a useful tool because oil is often surrounded by materials such as limestone and clay which are light and have less gravitational force than surrounding materials.

This type of map will be especially useful when arctic regions begin to melt allowing deepwater drilling to commence on previously unreachable territory. Gravitational force maps allow for companies to identify potential targets without the need of resource intensive explorations.

As the world’s global demand for oil continues to grow, it is important that science and technology are able to assist the human explorers seeking additional reserves. Although oil is not a renewable resource, new technologies such as satellite imagery will be able to make the global supply last as an energy source for decades and maybe centuries to come.

Nick Benoit is a freelance writer who specializes in technology Nick blogs via Contently.com.

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