GIS for Oil & Gas | Optimize upstream, midstream, and downstream

Oil and gas are an integral part of the infrastructure and economy in most countries. From location and extraction, to field work management, to resource transporation - geography plays a singificant role in how this industry operates.

That in mind, it's easy to see how geographic information systems (GIS) are useful in this industry.

New to GIS? Check out our blog Intro to GIS: What It Is and How to Get Started.

GIS for oil and gas enables advanced mapping and spatial analytics, increasing operational efficiency through rich location intelligence.

With GIS oil and gas operators can:

  • Capture, analyze, and store data about potential drill sites
  • Layer data for effective pipeline mapping
  • Manage field teams remotely
  • Conduct analysis of exploratory wells
  • Receive real-time updates about site or pipeline status

Below we'll cover the three primary oil and gas sectors (upstream, midstream, downstream), and then take a deeper look at the benefits of using GIS for oil and gas.

Upstream, Midstream & Downstream Oil & Gas

Oil and gas is a massive industry: processes have long timelines and projects span significant distances. Broadly speaking, oil and gas operations are broken into three categories: upstream, midstream, and downstream.

upstream oil rig

Search - Recovery - Production

Upstream oil and gas covers both exploration and production: encompassing the search, recovery, and production of crude oil and/or natural gas.

One of the most significant activities during this phases is the drilling and operation of exploratory wells.

Desktop GIS technology is particularly helpful during this exploratory phase.

Upstream oil and gas operations require precision and a high-degree of technical sophistication. Desktop GIS provides the heavy duty analysis and visualization tools necessary to manage these processes.

Once a resource is extracted, the upstream phase is considered complete.

Processing - Transportation - Storage

Midstream operations connect the upstream and downstream sectors. In the midstream sector, oil and natural gas are processed, stored, transported, and sometimes marketed to wholesale customers.

oil pipeline

Here the primary concerns are generally logistical: focusing on how resources can be moved and processed most effectively.

Midstream assets include pipelines and other transport systems. Daily operations involve moving crude oil from production sites to refineries, or from natural gas plants to downstream customers.

There is some amount of overlap between upstream, downstream, and the midstream sector. In other words, few operators are strictly midstream and many upstream and downstream operators manage some midstream components.

Refining - Sales

Downstream oil and gas operations focus on refining both crude oil and raw natural gas, as well as sales and distribution to customers.

oil refinery

Unlike upstream and midstream, the downstream sector is responsible for retail operations, so a significant facet of downstream operations is marketing.

Downstream oil and gas assets include petrochemical plants, natural gas distribution outfits, oil refineries, and retail operations such as gas stations.

This sector covers production and management of final oil and gas products. This includes obvious substances such as gasoline and diesel, as well as hydrocarbon based products such as fertilizer, preservatives, and plastics.

With the three main oil and gas sectors in mind, here are five benefits of using GIS for oil and gas.

5 Applications for GIS in Oil & Gas

From upstream well planning to downstream refinery management, and even into long-term environmental monitoring - every sector of the oil and gas industry can benefit from using GIS.

GIS for oil and gas

1. Well Planning (Upstream)

With the rise of unconventional resources like shale gas, shale oil, and coal bed methane, GIS is being utilized more and more for well planning.

GIS helps users to plan well pad patterns around multiple surface drilling constraints, as well as optimize for the most efficient drill pattern configuration.

With GIS, users can integrate various data types, compare between current and prospective land holdings, evaluate potential sites quickly, and streamline internal decision making.

2. Pipeline Routing (Midstream)

Building transport pipelines is an expensive process. If the pipeline doesn't take the best route from the upstream source to the downstream facility, overall costs rise quickly.

midstream oil pipeline

Pipeline routing can be simplified with a process called “least-cost path analysis.”

As the name suggests, this process identifies the route of least resistance between upstream and downstream.

Least-cost is determined not just by finding a straight path, but on the effort needed to pass. A user can create cost raster datasets that include information on slope and land-cover, using those variables to help determine level of estimated effort.

As an added benefit, GIS can also determine a more environmentally-friendly route.

3. Refinery Management (Downstream)

Refinery management involves organizing data, informing operational decisions, and reducing costs. Essentially, it's a type of asset management - a task for which GIS can be quite helpful.

oil refinery managment

With GIS, downstream operators can manage refineries more effectively: tracking status, managing maintenance schedules, and estimating asset lifecycle with greater accuracy.

With real-time data shared seamlessly between teams, refinery managers can use GIS to predict asset health and build a preventative maintenance schedule: mitigating risk and helping to avoid costly, unexpected breakdowns.

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4. Emergency Response

In the case of oil and gas, emergencies typically involve an oil spill or gas explosion. Fortunately, GIS can assist with both emergency planning and response management.

When an accident occurs, GIS enables quick access to all site data. This includes the number of field workers on-site, as well as their physical location (thanks to mobile device tracking).

Plus, the ability to share that information with stakeholders and even the public can be incredibly useful.

Ultimately, GIS enables better decision-making during emergency situations.

environmental monitoring software

5. Environmental Monitoring

Oil and gas companies must closely monitor environmental changes associated with their operations, especially given the current focus on shale play development.

Given its ability to integrate and visualize time-stamped data against a baseline case, GIS is an invaluable tool for environmental monitoring.

For example, if an extraction process starts causing subsidence (gradual caving or sinking in an area of land), GIS can help users quickly detect the issue, analyze it's severity, and propose an efficient plan for mitigation.


Overall, GIS is an incredibly useful tool that offers significant benefits across every sector of the oil and gas industry.

From increased efficiency in well planning and pipeline routing, to effective refinery management and emergency response, to better environmental monitoring - GIS has the potential to optimize almost every step of the oil and gas process.

Interested in the power of Mobile GIS?

Back-office GIS requires specialized training and often is siloed from the field or relegated to counterintuitive apps. And yet, robust maps are critical to contextualizing work in the field and streamlining communication.

For this reason, Unearth developed OnePlace - a Mobile GIS for simple mapmaking, multimedia geolocation, and intuitive data collection. As an added bonus, OnePlace enables real-time communication and progress tracking.

Unearth's Mobile GIS on a laptop and mobile phone

Explore GIS applications within...



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Plus, check out our white paper on collecting field data more efficiently with cloud-based tools.

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