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From Oil Boom, McDonald Observatory Faces An "Existential Threat"

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(Credit: Woody Welch)

Since its first telescope was dedicated in 1939, astronomers at McDonald Observatory have enjoyed some of the darkest skies in the country. Researchers apply months in advance for an opportunity to gather data there. And they come from all over the world.

Lawmakers have recognized its unique value. In 1978, the Texas legislature granted special authority to the seven counties surrounding the observatory to regulate outdoor lighting. Six of the seven counties, and eight local municipalities, have passed outdoor-lighting ordinances.

As part of its Dark Skies Initiative, McDonald Observatory has helped to install shields on 800 lights in nearby communities. Sheilds keep outdoor lights contained and focused downward. With just a little effort, businesses and residents alike can preserve the darkness of the heavens.

2009 was the beginning of the latest oil-and-gas boom in West Texas. New drilling extended into Reeves, Pecos and Culberson counties, near the observatory. About 5,000 new drilling permits were issued there that year.

William Wren is special assistant to the observatory's superintendent and has worked Initiative for a quarter century. He said the new drilling rigs had a dramatic effect.

“We can demonstrate that since the first of 2009 the sky has brightened about 40 percent above what it was in mid 2009 – it's about 70 percent above what we would consider the normal, dark, background sky.”

Wren set out on a communications mission. He's spoken with a long list of trade groups and industry leaders about minimizing light pollution. Counties could issue fines for lighting violations. But Wren said the observatory kept its focus on education, not enforcement.

And Wren said he's optimistic about the prospects for change. The observatory partnered with one producer –Pioneer Energy– for a pilot project. They overhauled the lighting on the oil rigs. Wren said that project turned skeptical roughnecks into true believers.

“We believe that the lighting practices that we're proposing the industry adopt is in their interest, and that they will move to adopt it, not out of any love for dark skies. It will be because it's more cost-efficient, longer life-expectancies, solid-state control, all kinds of good reasons to go to the new LED technology in particular.”

But serious challenges remain. Natural gas flares are a major source of light pollution. And flaring is likely to continue.

In 2015, the observatory was poised to complete a $40 million upgrade to its Hobby-Eberly Telescope. New spectograph devices will allow astronomers to gather data from the most distant reaches of the galaxy. That data could spur discoveries and insights that “we can't even imagine,” Wren says. Astronomers with the University of Texas at Austin will use the technology to investigate dark energy – one of the most baffling mysteries in physics and astronomy.

Stray light from oil fields has not prevented research at the observatory, Wren says. But if it continues, the light pollution could diminish this cutting-edge research.

Wren says the slowdown in drilling in early 2015 provides an opportunity for the observatory to work with the oil-and-gas industry, so that better lighting practices might be implemented when drilling resumes.

“The brightening of the night skies poses an existential threat to research at McDonald Observatory, there's just no two ways about it. We believe that this slowdown is really a great opportunity to expand the conversation with the oil and gas industry. Hopefully we'll get some tangible, very real changes in outdoor lighting practices in the oil and gas industry by the time things get going again.”