Rachael Gleason for Midland Reporter-Telegram, Texas
A West Texas astronomical observatory known for discovering the largest supermassive black hole is facing the threat of growing cities and increased oil and gas play lighting up the horizon.
McDonald Observatory celebrates 75 years of research and public outreach this year with a $30 million upgrade to its Hobby-Eberly Telescope.
Once completed in October, the telescope will explore huge swathes of dark skies and starry nights for the secrets of dark energy, said William Wren, special assistant to the observatory’s superintendent.
“There will be discoveries coming out of this project we can’t even conceive of today,” said Wren, noting the mountain of data will be publically available.
But with West Texas cities booming — and drilling rigs lining the horizon of once desolate places — astronomers are worried about the impact of light on their research.
Wren shared a photo of his view of the skies at a Sibley Nature Center brown bag luncheon Wednesday. Even though it’s the farthest city, El Paso once had the biggest impact on the observatory.
“That was the brightest thing in our sky up until a few years ago,” Wren said. “Now the Permian Basin is lighting up our horizon.”
Permian Basin production was up nearly 11 percent in March from last year, according to the most recent index. There was also a 7 percent increase in the number of rigs — five times more from 20 years ago — during the same time period.
“The places you can go to see natural black skies are vanishing,” Wren said, showing satellite imagery of the United States at night from 2010 to 2012.
Oil and gas activity in the Wolfcamp-Spraberry play and Eagleford Shale now light up once dark areas of Texas. But Wren said the observatory isn’t pushing for nearby communities or oil and gas operations to “go dark” — just adopt better lightning practices.
“Light that is going up to the sky — it’s a waste. There’s no reason for it at all,” Wren said.
Good, safe outdoor lighting is possible, he said, pointing to Tucson, Arizona, and gas stations and convenience stores that have found success in switching to focused lighting or LEDs.
“Often times it’s more cost efficient, reduces flare and increases visibility at night while keeping skies dark,” he said.
McDonald Observatory is also working with Pioneer Energy Services, a San Antonio company with a West Texas presence, to create a “dark-sky friendly” drilling rig.
After following a Pioneer rig around West Texas, Wren said the both observatory officials and rig crews found success with a certain type of light covering that reduces glare and light pollution.
“When we set about this project to work with the oil industry to keep their lights on their work and out of the sky, we did so fully mindful that it wouldn’t be at the expense of anyone’s safety,” he said. “We were tickled pink to find that we could shield the lighting — keeping the light out of the sky and get more light down the deck — while keeping the glare of out their eyes.”
Frank West, president of Pioneer’s drilling division, confirmed outfitting rig lights with appropriate covers is an “ongoing project.”
Still, Wren worries about light coming from permanent oil and gas fixtures such as storage centers and pipelines. Drilling rigs move around, and he understands companies would rather not have to burn natural gas.
“My biggest concern is the stuff that’s left behind,” he said.
A state bill might hold promise for communities within a 57-mile radius of the observatory. The bill — once voluntary — now requires seven counties to adopt lighting ordinances that protect astronomical research.
“That’s 28,000 square miles the Legislature set aside to protect dark skies,” Wren said.