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Technological innovations in Arctic wildlife protection

We have implemented technological advancements to improve our understanding of the tundra, wildlife, aquatic resources and subsistence activities near our operations.

ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson project is located on state acreage along the Beaufort Sea coast, 60 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The Point Thomson reservoir holds an estimated 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and associated natural gas condensate, a high-quality hydrocarbon similar to diesel. These resources represent about 25 percent of the known natural gas reserves in Alaska’s North Slope. From the outset of the project, ExxonMobil has worked to understand the local physical, biological and social environment.

It is our goal to develop Point Thomson safely and responsibly. We believe that strong safety, security, health, environmental and social performance is integral to the overall success of the project. Throughout the planning, design and construction of Point Thomson, ExxonMobil has made it a priority to effectively manage environmental impacts. We have implemented comprehensive measures to mitigate potential impacts on tundra, wildlife, aquatic resources and subsistence activities.

As part of the project, care is taken to ensure wildlife and wildlife habitat in the area are protected. We use marine mammal and wildlife protection plans that are recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a North Slope industry best practice. We continually look for technological advancements to improve our understanding of the wildlife near our operations.

In 2015, we piloted and enhanced a series of emerging technologies in the oil and gas industry, including the use of satellite-based remote sensing technology, ground surveillance radar (GSR) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to monitor local wildlife and improve our environmental performance in the vicinity of our Point Thomson project site.

Polar bears, which are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, travel through the Point Thomson area. ExxonMobil has taken several measures to identify and avoid potential contact with polar bears and polar bear dens, including the use of forward-looking infrared cameras to survey surrounding areas. We also provide training to Point Thomson employees and contractors on best practices for avoiding and mitigating interactions with wildlife. Early detection of polar bears helps workers to maintain a safe distance, improves our ability to monitor bear movement and, if necessary, allows us to warn workers to seek safe haven or safely redirect bears away from our facilities in accordance with procedures approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In April 2015, we upgraded and expanded the use of GSR technology to detect polar bears and other large animals approaching from distances greater than one kilometer. This pilot program combines state-of-the-art radar with pan-tilt-zoom infrared and visual spectrum cameras to provide visual confirmation of objects detected by the radar.

The technology put in place at Point Thomson is believed to be one of the most advanced detection and avoidance systems ever deployed in a remote Arctic environment — where both human safety and polar bear protection are vital concerns. We are enhancing the system in 2016 with additional radar panels and cameras to provide greater coverage around the facility.

A core component of ExxonMobil’s vision for Point Thomson is to be a good neighbor. We work with the local communities and government authorities in the project area to understand their concerns and avoid conflicts with their lifestyle. Through a comprehensive assessment approach and regular engagement, we are able to identify areas of concern to the local residents, and we have adopted corresponding measures to address these concerns. We also engage with stakeholders in local communities and with government and regulatory agencies to help address biodiversity and sustainability challenges. For example, ExxonMobil participates in meetings and workshops with North Slope Borough officials and residents to develop a deeper understanding of local concerns and priorities.

ExxonMobil monitors caribou in the Point Thomson project area to assess herd migration patterns. Traditional aerial surveys were conducted in June 2013 and June 2014 to count caribou in the project area and document calving locations. Between May and September 2013, we deployed motion-activated cameras to document caribou movements near planned infrastructure, and in 2014, we monitored caribou behavior around constructed facilities.

In response to feedback from North Slope communities about the use of low-flying aircraft in caribou surveys, we tested the capabilities of satellite-based remote sensing techniques to monitor the annual summer caribou migration near our project location in 2015. Following three years of monitoring, the number of caribou moving through the area suggested that the presence of the pipeline did not deter caribou movements.

Using remote sensing technology enabled us to augment aerial surveys and reduce the use of low-flying aircraft for caribou surveys. We used high-resolution imagery collected from three satellite platforms, in coordination with an aircraft survey and caribou collar GPS data, to determine known caribou locations. Data from all three platforms were evaluated for visual and unique spectral signatures. The preliminary results from this initiative proved promising, and we will continue to test remote sensing and other emerging technologies to further enhance our wildlife monitoring initiatives. To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to use remote sensing methodologies to monitor caribou populations on the North Slope of Alaska.

ExxonMobil also seeks to protect wetlands, streams, lakes and marine waters in the Point Thomson area. For example, we designed roads, bridges and culverts in a manner that maintains natural drainage patterns and stream flows to the extent possible. Additionally, where appropriate, ExxonMobil uses bridges instead of culverts to mitigate potential impacts on fish passage and stream flows. In 2015, our engineers and scientists experimented with two UAS surveys at Point Thomson to evaluate tundra vegetation and water bodies as an alternative to traditional helicopter-based surveys. The UAS proved to be more accurate and provided superior imagery for photographic monitoring of these important environmental sites. During the same experiment, we evaluated the ability to survey pipelines in the vicinity of our Point Thomson operations.

Point Thomson marks a new era both for ExxonMobil in Alaska and the North Slope. ExxonMobil’s investments will open the eastern North Slope to new development and lead to the prolonged use of the trans-Alaska pipeline system. Throughout the planning, design and construction of the Point Thomson project, ExxonMobil has made it a priority to avoid or reduce environmental and social impacts and their related risks. We have implemented a variety of mitigation measures with a focus on the tundra, wildlife, aquatic resources and subsistence activities to ensure our operations are conducted in a responsible manner.

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