Deer Park disaster raises transparency questions


It would have been impossible for anyone in the Houston-area to ignore the recent fires raging in nearby Deer Park, where storage tanks holding chemicals that go into making gasoline ignited March 17.

A thick blanket of black, acrid smoke hung over the area for several days creating a public health and environmental crisis.

For the energy markets, the events had an additional layer of significance, considering the location. Draw a circle around Deer Park and count the number of refineries, storage tanks, and  ships traveling up and down the Houston Ship Channel.

The US Coast Guard closed a section of the Houston Ship Channel for the weekend, causing a backlog of ships waiting to leave and enter the country’s busiest oil port.

That section reopened with restrictions, and the glut has yet to fully dissipate. As of Wednesday, March 27, there were 50 ships waiting to enter and 26 ships waiting to leave the Houston Ship Channel, according to the Coast Guard.

This is the heart of the US petroleum complex, which also happens to be a stone’s throw from the fourth largest city in the United States.

March 19, 2019
Source: Planet Labs

Not surprisingly, the fires were reported on extensively by local and national media, as well as the financial press.

That makes the Deer Park disaster unique. Incidents like this one, only on a smaller scale, are hardly uncommon globally, yet receive a fraction of the news coverage. Some may even go unreported.

Accounts of such incidents may emerge through word-of-mouth or official statements, leaving much to be desired.

Is there a better approach?

That question is a natural one for us to answer. We monitor earth from space using satellite imagery. When a tank is destroyed, we can see it.

The satellite photo below shows the Deer Park storage tanks where the fire occurred on March 20, the day the fire was extinguished.


March 20, 2019
Planet Labs

The fire began when one of the tanks owned by Intercontinental Terminal leaked naphtha, a volatile compound and key component in the production of gasoline.

Despite firefighting efforts, the fire spread over the next few days to other tanks at the ITC facility, feeding the blaze. Each tank could hold approximately 80,000 barrels of fuel, according to Reuters.

One limitation of this type of satellite imagery (a.k.a. electro-optical) is that the conditions have to be right to know what is happening on the ground.

Smoke or clouds obstruct the view, or if it’s nighttime, not much could be gleaned using electro-optical imagery.

Fortunately, there is another tool available, which we specialize in, called synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can be used in any weather, day or night.

The SAR image below shows 15 ITC-owned tanks on March 24. The black-and-white pixels won’t make much sense to the untrained eye. However, we have a team of radar imagery specialists who can analyze these images using a visual and algorithmic approach.

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Copernicus Sentinel data 2019, processed by European Space Agency
Illustration credit: Ursa

This example begs the question about scalability. Can you do this sort of analysis on a regular basis around the world?

Keep in mind, we already use SAR imagery to measure the amount of crude stored in thousands of floating-top tanks every week, providing a solid foundation to build on.

Email us at if you’re interested in learning more.




Live count of Ursa Space’s SAR + Optical imagery/data catalog

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