Cheniere Energy, Inc. is a dynamic integrated energy company based in Houston, Texas. The company operates the world’s largest receiving terminal for Liquid Natural Gas at the mouth of the Sabine River in Louisiana and the 94-mile-long Creole Trail pipeline, which was commissioned in 2008.
When the pipeline went into operation, Cheniere had a benchmark situation for integrity management. The pipeline was manufactured and constructed to exacting standards. During the project, the company developed a comprehensive, state-of-the-art digital GIS database covering the entire corridor. In addition, the company used orthogonal aerial imagery to validate field data.
Ever conscious of the need to leverage new technology, Cheniere found a way to improve the quality of their data and processes in the fall of 2010 by utilizing Pictometry’s oblique, high-resolution aerial imaging and web-based Pictometry Online™ solution. Now this forward-thinking company is using visual intelligence from Pictometry to identify structures, classify locations, and dramatically reduce the number of areas that need on-site "ground truthing." This is the story...
Building a benchmark dataset for pipeline integrity management
If you wanted to create a perfect situation for pipeline integrity management, you couldn’t do much better than Cheniere Energy. This Houston-based integrated energy company went to great lengths to ensure the quality of everything involved in its new Creole Trail pipeline. Right from the beginning, Cheniere set uncompromising standards for pipe milling and manufacturing. Then each joint was bar-coded to facilitate location and maintenance. When sections of the pipe were finally placed in the ditch, surveyors captured the exact GPS coordinates for 70% of the welds on the 100-mile pipeline, providing the foundation for a precise Geospatial digital database.
But that was just the beginning. Cheniere also enriched the GIS data with layers of information on structures, roads, railroads, utility crossings, encroachments and other features of the Pipeline and its surrounding environment.
In addition, the company implemented sophisticated tools that allowed it to make real-time updates to the database whenever changes to High Consequence Area (HCA) borders and class locations were detected. Then the company took another quality control step: It updated orthogonal, "top-down" aerial imagery of the entire Creole Trail corridor.
"The orthogonal imagery basically gave us a picture of what’s on the ground," explained Chris Williams, the Director of Pipeline Technical Services. "So it provided up-to-date visual verification of the field information in our database."
It was all part of an ambitious effort to build a strong foundation for pipeline integrity management. "Our goal right from the beginning was to build a state-of-the-art dataset to manage our pipeline, maintain safety and evaluate threats and risks," Chris said.
An eye-opening demonstration reveals room for improvement
At Cheniere, company leaders are always looking for ways to improve their operations with innovative technology. After the pipeline went into operation, Chris Williams learned about an innovative approach to aerial imaging that might have valuable applications for pipeline management. The approach featured ultra-high-resolution aerial images captured at an oblique angle by a company called Pictometry International Corp. based in Rochester, N.Y. Pictometry is one of the world’s leading providers of intelligent images for strategic business applications.
According to Pictometry, the oblique angle captured by their proprietary aerial imaging process would reveal important dimensional information and details that are lost in traditional orthogonal imagery.
Pictometry also offered an easy-to-use, web-based solution called Pictometry Online
that would help Cheniere manage and work with the comprehensive visual intelligence it provided on the Creole Trail pipeline corridor.
See everywhere, measure anything, plan everything®
With Pictometry Online(POL), Cheniere’s integrity management team would be able to see every square foot of the pipeline’s Potential Impact Radius from overhead and oblique angles, identify hard-to-see structures, perform precise measurements, and quickly determine latitude, longitude, directional bearing and relative positioning.
Cheniere would also be able to use POL to add annotations, access information and overlay aerial images with maps, parcel boundaries, elevation contours and other digital information.
The Pictometry solution sounded intriguing. But Chris wasn’t sure that Cheniere needed another source of aerial imaging. Nevertheless, he agreed to see a demonstration. He invited other GIS, construction, and integrity management experts in his company to join him.
"We wanted to see what Pictometry could do for us," Chris recalled. "And we wanted to see the images they already had in their database on our corridor. It simply made sense from a due diligence standpoint."
The curious case of the 2-family "barn"
A few days before the presentation in Cheniere’s Houston headquarters, Chris had been on a routine patrol with company technicians driving along the Creole Trail corridor when he noticed a building that seemed out of character with the rest of the area.
From a quick, drive-by view, it looked like it might be a family residence. But he was pretty sure that there wasn’t a residence shown in that particular area in the company’s database. Making a note to check the structure’s classification in the GIS on returning to the office, he decided it would be interesting to see what that structure looked like in Pictometry’s high resolution, 3D-like aerial imagery.
On the day of the demonstration, Chris asked Pictometry’s Oil and Gas expert, Jim Murray, to navigate to the address in question, explaining to everyone in the room the reason for the request: There might be an error in the database that could affect the structure count along that segment of pipeline.
Using Pictometry Online’s built-in toolset, Jim quickly located the right address and zoomed in on the structure. Even though the building was identified as unoccupied in Cheniere’s database, the image on the screen clearly showed two electrical service boxes on a wall and a trampoline out back; features that could not be identified using the company’s existing orthogonal imagery.
The oblique photography clearly indicated that this structure was more than likely occupied; further investigation revealed that it was a two-family duplex.
"Right away we could see it was a residential building," Chris recalled. "And that meant we needed to ground truth the structure and update our database. It really proved the point that Pictometry’s images would help validate our data and improve our integrity management program."
The "right" angle for remote structural identification
The demonstration definitely proved the concept: Pictometry’s oblique aerial images made it easier for the company to accurately identify structures from a remote location. So Cheniere Energy quickly became a Pictometry client.
"As an additional quality check, I began using the tool right away to review our entire pipeline corridor," Chris recalled. "And I found that new structures had been constructed along the corridor. That confirmed the value of Pictometry."
Optimized management of Population Density Data
Cheniere is now using Pictometry Online as a mainstay tool in its Pipeline Integrity Management Program. Most structures along the pipeline corridor can be identified at a glance thanks to the high-resolution imagery and dimensional detail. In addition, the GIS data classifying the structures can be validated in Pictometry Online by using imported structural outlines.
Of course, safety is a paramount concern in the pipeline industry. There will always be situations that require the use of field crews for on-site validation or "ground truthing." Cheniere found that Pictometry dramatically reduced the amount of ground truthing required to maintain comprehensive and accurate population density data.
"If you can make the call from looking at an oblique aerial image, you don’t need to send out a field crew," Chris explained. "It definitely reduces the amount of territory you have to inspect on-site. And that lets you optimize the use of field crews, enhance data quality, and reduce operational costs."
A growing number of benefits
With Pictometry Online, Cheniere can carefully review the entire pipeline corridor to identify structures within the Potential Impact Radius, target sites for further investigation, and reduce the number of costly ground truthing deployments. The process can be completed faster than traditional approaches. But there are other benefits as well.
Pictometry Intelligent Images help Cheniere:
- Set boundaries on places of assembly.
- Respond quickly in an emergency by providing geocoded addresses for all properties along the corridor.
- Access land records through the built-in link to up-to-date cadastre information.
- Detect population shifts and changes in geography by comparing the latest images with historical images in Pictometry’s database, which includes 140 million images covering 80% of the U.S. population.
"Basically, Pictometry helps us evaluate risks and consequences along our pipeline so we can perform preventive and mitigative actions," Chris said "which helps us optimize the way we use our resources to protect the pipeline. That’s a pretty solid business case for a very reasonable investment."
Evolving uses in new pipeline construction
In the aftermath of game-changing storms like Hurricane Katrina, the landscape and population centers can change quickly in coastal Louisiana. That’s why Cheniere plans to capture oblique aerial images of its pipeline corridor on a regular basis with help from Pictometry’s large aerial fleet. Pictometry is one of the world’s most efficient aerial image capture and processing companies.
In the future, Cheniere intends to use Pictometry to facilitate planning for pipeline expansion and new construction. Pictometry’s intelligent images will help the company evaluate proposed routes, plot the best course, identify potential HCAs, delineate wetlands, and monitor changing conditions along the corridor.
It’s all part of a growing strategic partnership between a dynamic energy company and an innovative provider of geo-referenced aerial image libraries and related software.
"Pictometry Online has increased our confidence in the accuracy of our data and helped us improve operational efficiency and integrity management," Chris said. "When you consider all of the benefits, it’s clear that we’re getting a lot of value from the solution."