Interview with a Scientist: How Satellite Imagery Can Increase Accountability and Mitigate Climate Change

Earlier this year, Crude Accountability collaborated with a team of researchers for our report, Flames of Toxicity, which focused on the impacts of the Sangachal Oil Terminal on communities in Azerbaijan, using both satellite imagery and on-the-ground monitoring to analyze the situation. To better understand the broader uses of satellite data, we sat down with satellite data and sustainable development researcher Seonaid Rapach, who recently defended her master’s dissertation at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.  

We chatted with Rapach about her research into how satellite data can be used to improve accountability, especially in the oil and gas industry; how international financial institutions can use satellite data to make more informed decisions; and how this technology can be used to track and mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Seonaid Rapach: Satellite data is a very up-and-coming area of research.  It offers a unique insight into what’s happening on Earth, it’s easy to digest, it’s standardized. There’s no bias in satellite data. It’s not confined to where anything is, and you can monitor remote locations. 

At the moment, I’m researching how financial institutions can use satellite data in their decision-making. A lot of banks that have assets in the oil and gas industry rely solely on self-reported data. So when financial institutions are trying to improve their environmental, social, and governance ratings, they’re relying on data that can potentially be forged. That’s quite an extreme case, but there could be bias towards the company. 

Satellite data can offer a new perspective, because there is no bias, and one can confirm the satellite findings with self-reported data, just as I did with my dissertation. 

I’m looking at how banks can use that method in their own decision-making. 

Take the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, for example, which is financing the ACG fields (Azeri–Chirag–Guneshli is a complex of oil fields in the Caspian Sea, off the coast of Azerbaijan). Their asset management and control over that asset can completely change. If the results that they get from satellite data differ from self-reported results, they can have a lot more accountability. 

Crude Accountability: How can satellite data help us to mitigate the risks of climate change?

SR: A lot of communities around the world are facing the effects of climate change. Satellite data is a bird’s eye view and allows us to actually monitor the extent of the effects. For example, monitoring the amount of flooding in a coastal area, or monitoring the extent of wildfires. 

Also, that data can be used in prediction modeling for climate modeling to see how it will impact places in later years and whether it gets worse in the future.

Satellite data could be used in these climate models, essentially. In my project, I’m finding that if satellite data can enhance models, then financial institutions can assess the risks involved. 

Whether it’s for somebody who has property facing damage from flooding or if a bank asset is at risk of tsunami, for example, –  it is going to impact the production and output of income from that asset.

CA: In your dissertation, you looked at flaring from the  Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) field. Can you tell us more about the methods you use to track flaring? 

SR: For my research, I used two methods to quantify the gas flaring characteristics, particularly the volume of gas that has been flared. 

The first method is by looking at the heat signatures (derived from VIIRS, Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, data – CA) and estimating the temperature and size of detected flares. From that, you can approximate the volume of gas that is burnt. 

The other method was to look at the emissions that come off from flaring – nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, the byproducts of flaring – and their column-densities (uses Sentinel-5 data – CA). 

By quantifying the amount of gas that is present around these platforms, then you can work backward and quantify how much gas has actually been burned. I really enjoyed working with Crude Accountability.

CA: How might you summarize your findings in just a few sentences? 

SR: What I found from the results is that the trends that were highlighted from the satellite data, and also from BP’s own self-reported data, matched up pretty consistently. 

However, while the trends lined up with the BP results, the actual volume of gas that was presented on an annual basis didn’t match up. The results that I got from one particular method did quantify a higher level. And so the next step forward, I would say is to find a way to see if there was a problem with the method, or if this is actually the case that they were emitting, or they were burning off a larger volume of gas than what was reported by BP. 

Another thing that I found that was interesting, though, is that BP and SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) had a partnership to reduce gas flaring, to cut emissions across fields.

However, the results that they hoped to achieve did not match up with the results that were detected from the satellite data. Actually, the results that they hoped to achieve don’t even line up with their own self-reported data. 

It does beg the question of who is responsible for ensuring that they stick to those standards and stick to their predictions for the future? They got a commendation from the GGFR (Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership), which is part of the World Bank, for this initiative to reduce gas flaring, but it didn’t match up with the results generated in the dissertation, which I found quite interesting.

My dissertation was definitely the beginning of future research that can come from it. 

As a scientist, you don’t want to say a definite, “this is what’s happening” because it’s such a new field. 

The method needs to be enhanced, but, definitely, the results already show interesting trends. You are already seeing oil and gas companies getting a bit worried because the satellite data is showing something different from what they’re saying.