Environment & Energy – Exxon Mobil tests ground-surveillance radar to monitor wildlife

(To view the original Environment & Energy article, click here.)

Margaret Kriz Hobson, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, August 4, 2014

POINT THOMSON, Alaska — Last August, a polar bear wandering along Alaska’s Beaufort Sea shoreline provided the perfect opportunity for Exxon Mobil wildlife experts to test their experimental new bear detection technology.

“It was a dark and foggy night, and there was something moving in the distance,” recalled Chris Warren, the wildlife issues lead for Exxon Mobil’s natural gas project here.

From the company’s wildlife monitoring station, observers detected a bear-sized image on their state-of-the-art ground surveillance monitoring radar. The installation is a scaled-down version of technology used by the military.

Once the animal was spotted, wildlife experts confirmed and tracked the bear using surveillance cameras equipped with pan-tilt-zoom lenses. The radar and camera images are monitored 24 hours a day on computer screens in the company’s wildlife station.

Eventually, the bear wandered away from the 50-acre drilling site without incident.

If it hadn’t, Point Thomson officials said, they would have first blasted a warning horn three times to signal employees to take cover, and then activated both horns and flashing lights to encourage the bear to leave the area.

“We don’t want them to become acclimated to the site,” Warren explained.

If the bear had lingered, the 500 workers at the site would have been ordered to stay in place. “Ultimately, the bear has the right of way,” he said.

Ground surveillance radar has never been used for bear detection and tracking in the Arctic, where fog, bad weather and winter darkness can undermine conventional monitoring techniques.

That’s a serious problem, especially in July through September, when polar bears tend to be more active in the region.

Exxon Mobil acquired the monitoring system from SpotterRF, a Utah-based technology company that specializes in small, low-power radar systems. The company installed the bear security system in May and has been working with NANA Management Services to fine-tune the network.

To get a better idea of what a polar or grizzly bear would look like on the radar screen, company scientists secured permission to test their equipment on the bears at the Alaska Zoo.

Exxon’s detection project drew praise from Polar Bears International.

“If successful, this technology could be deployed elsewhere in the Arctic where camps or communities have concerns about human bear safety — like Churchill Manitoba or Arviat in Nunavut,” said Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International, in an email.

“Ultimately it may guide solutions to human wildlife conflict hot spots across species and around the world and may have application in protecting critically endangered species from illegal poaching through detection of poachers in remote landscapes,” York said.

Exxon Mobil’s animal detection pilot program is being proven and refined on the Alaska tundra at the company’s Point Thomson natural gas drilling site. The facility, which is currently under construction, is located 60 miles west of Prudhoe Bay, just outside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By 2016, Exxon Mobil expects to begin extracting 10,000 barrels of natural gas condensates per day from Point Thomson and shipping them by pipeline to the TransAlaska Pipeline system (EnergyWire, April 16, 2013).

Ultimately, the company is hoping to tap the estimated 8 trillion cubic feet of dry natural gas located at the site. This resource represents almost a quarter of the natural gas reserves available on the North Slope.

To commercialize the dry gas, the company formed a joint venture with BP Alaska, ConocoPhillips Alaska, TransCanada Corp. and the state of Alaska. That group is currently conducting early engineering that could ultimately lead to construction of a multibillion-dollar pipeline to a southern Alaska gas export facility.

The partnership recently sought an Energy Department permit to export up to 20 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas each year from the state (EnergyWire, July 21).

Twitter: @hobsonenergywire | Email: mhobson@eenews.net

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