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Start-up uses satellites to track oil glut and supply chains from space

Ines Ferré
·Markets Reporter
·2 min read

One company is tracking the oil supply glut amid the coronavirus pandemic using satellite images of tankers around the world.

“We're able to look at the shadows cast by the size of the tank on the floating lid and use a little trigonometry and figure out how full all those tanks are,” James Crawford, CEO of Orbital Insight, told Yahoo Finance.

“We've been seeing really historic increases in the amount of storage ... around the globe,” he added.

The start-up, which is backed by Goldman Sachs, uses a network of over 200 satellites to spot the roughly 25,000 oil tanks worldwide currently storing about 3.2 billion barrels of oil.

“We're seeing OPEC inventories up 21 million barrels in the last 30 days, Chinese inventory levels of 20 million barrels in the last 30 days,” said Crawford. “As long as the coronavirus slowdown continues, we seem to just be building. And I think that more than anything else is what's spooking the markets.”

Dalian, China
Dalian, China

Driving behavior in China suggests ‘L-shaped’ recovery

Orbital’s satellites can also track cars on the road. Crawford said driving activity around Beijing declined precipitously during the China lockdown. Traffic in that area is currently about 50% what it used to be prior to the outbreak, suggesting the recovery in China is taking some time.

“It has not been in China, a V-shaped or U shaped recovery. It’s been been very L-shaped in terms of driving behavior. So I think that alone suggests that the demand is made to take some time to start to recover, “ said Crawford.

When a meat plant closes ‘we can actually see that’

Orbital also has the ability to track anonymized cell phone counts at meatpacking plants around the country. Some facilities have recently had to slowed down or temporarily close due to COVID-19.

“We can tell you inside a meatpacking plant, roughly how many cell phones are in the plant,” said Crawford. “When a plant like Smithfield slows down and then closes, we can actually see that.”

The company can also track when a plant ramps up production by the number of cell phones in the area.

“We’re also seeing other plants like Abbeyland, actually starting to increase their workforce. So we will see more cell phones, more shifts, more workers. So there’s obviously some sort of rebalancing going on, but it’s something we are now starting to mark and track,” said Crawford.

Ines covers the U.S. stock market from the floor of the New York Exchange. Follow her on Twitter at @ines_ferre

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