Oil vs. as­tron­omy: The race to pro­tect the night sky in West Texas

The News Tribune - - Nation & World - BY JEFF MOSIER The Dal­las Morn­ing News

West Texas is famed world­wide for its vast crude oil re­serves. But for over 75 years, a small patch of the Per­mian Basin has also been val­ued for its pitch-black night sky.

Those two prized nat­u­ral re­sources have clashed in re­cent years as oil drilling has bright­ened the sky near McDon­ald Ob­ser­va­tory. A col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the pe­tro­leum in­dus­try and the ob­ser­va­tory – home of North Amer­ica’s largest tele­scope – ap­pears to have made progress in slow­ing the creep­ing light pol­lu­tion.

But there are no guar­an­tees about the night sky’s fu­ture as Per­mian Basin pro­duc­tion hits record lev­els and drilling inches closer to one of the dark­est spots on the con­ti­nent.

“For­tu­nately, we’re far enough away – at least for now – from most of the oil and gas ac­tiv­ity,” said Bill Wren, spe­cial as­sis­tant to the ob­ser­va­tory’s su­per­in­ten­dent. “And we’re sur­rounded by moun­tains, so we don’t ac­tu­ally see it line-of-sight. We just see a glow on the hori­zon. …

The sky over­head is still in­cred­i­bly dark.”

To un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing to their night sky, staff at the Univer­sity of Texas-owned ob­ser­va­tory started mea­sur­ing the amount of ar­ti­fi­cial light in Au­gust 2015. The sky then was 14 per­cent brighter on av­er­age than if the re­gion had no ar­ti­fi­cial light. By Novem­ber 2018, it was 43 per­cent brighter.

While the in­crease is wor­ri­some, it’s not a dis­as­ter. Al­most all of that light is low in the sky. “Astronomers typ­i­cally are not aim­ing their big re­search tele­scopes down in the dirt to look at ob­jects close to the hori­zon,” Wren said.

For now, there’s been no mea­sur­able in­crease in bright­ness in the night sky high over­head, he said.

But the over­all in­crease in light has changed the way the ob­ser­va­tory op­er­ates from its perch above the West Texas plains.

“For most of the his­tory of the ob­ser­va­tory, the bright­est thing in our sky – apart from the sun and the moon – was El Paso and Juarez,” Wren said, point­ing out that those cities are 160 miles away. “Now you can see that El Paso is largely swamped by the sky glow com­ing from the Per­mian.”

‘GATES OF HEAVEN’

The ob­ser­va­tory out­side Fort Davis ex­ists thanks to East Texas banker Wil­liam John­son McDon­ald. With no wife or chil­dren, he left his es­tate – worth nearly $1 mil­lion in 1926 – to the univer­sity. His de­mand was that UT cre­ate an as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­tory, one with a tele­scope large enough to peer into the “gates of Heaven.”

Univer­sity of­fi­cials found an ideal site in the Davis Moun­tains, thou­sands of feet above sparsely pop­u­lated West Texas.

The tele­scope was the world’s sec­ond-largest when it was ded­i­cated in 1939 and trailed only the Mount Wil­son Ob­ser­va­tory near Pasadena, Calif. When McDon­ald Ob­ser­va­tory was built, Wren said, light pol­lu­tion from the boom­ing Los An­ge­les area was al­ready start­ing to af­fect Mount Wil­son’s re­search.

In the decades since, McDon­ald Ob­ser­va­tory has built even larger tele­scopes and still has one of the world’s largest. The 22-year-old Hobby-Eberly Tele­scope is get­ting a $30 mil­lion up­grade to help it keep pace with the ob­ser­va­tory’s rich re­search his­tory.

Sci­en­tists in the Davis Moun­tains have fig­ured out meth­ods for cal­cu­lat­ing the size of stars by their bright­ness and tem­per­a­ture, di­vined the shape of the Milky Way galaxy, and found the most dis­tant su­per­nova.

Astro­physi­cists at the ob­ser­va­tory dis­cov­ered the at­mos­phere on Saturn’s moon Ti­tan. They bounced a laser off a re­flec­tor left on the moon by as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong and mea­sured the dis­tance to within a few inches.

Wren de­scribes his work­place as the “jewel of the UT sys­tem.”

LIGHT­ING THE WAY

Tele­scopes and oil drilling were never de­signed to co­ex­ist.

Signs on the fi­nal stretch of road lead­ing to McDon­ald Ob­ser­va­tory warn against the use of head­lights. And when staff mem­bers wan­der about in the dark, they use small lights that pro­vide just enough il­lu­mi­na­tion to guide their paths.

A few dozen miles away, 24-hour drilling op­er­a­tions are un­der­way with light tow­ers, each pow­er­ful enough to il­lu­mi­nate a half-dozen or more acres.

While those two worlds are now in con­flict, there isn’t a fight over who wins.

After reach­ing out to the in­dus­try sev­eral years ago, Wren said he’s re­ceived largely pos­i­tive re­sponses. Early of­fers of help came from Stacy Locke, pres­i­dent and CEO of San An­to­nio-based Pi­o­neer En­ergy Ser­vices.

Locke said he knew lit­tle about the ob­ser­va­tory at the time but val­ued the night sky. At his wife’s fam­ily ranch near the

West Texas town of Marathon, Locke said: “You see stars on ev­ery hori­zon you look at. The stars go right to the ground.”

But else­where, devel­op­ment had snuffed out sec­tions of night sky.

Locke and Wren both lament that gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren are grow­ing up with­out ever see­ing a clear view of the Milky Way.

When Wren asked

Locke if it was pos­si­ble to make a drilling rig dark­skies com­pli­ant, he said: “We don’t re­ally know, but we’re will­ing to try.”

Pi­o­neer En­ergy Ser­vices gave ob­ser­va­tory staff ac­cess to the com­pany’s rigs. Dur­ing his first visit, Wren said he no­ticed a rag stuffed in the mesh cov­er­ing of one light. A worker told him the work­around was needed to re­duce the dis­tract­ing glare.

“That was the smok­ing gun,” Wren said. “I knew we could do bet­ter than a rag.”

IN­DUS­TRY COL­LAB­O­RA­TION

Work­ing with Pi­o­neer En­ergy Ser­vices and the Apache Corp., Wren has been able to assem­ble guide­lines for light­ing drilling rigs that are ben­e­fi­cial to both sides.

The over­all ideas were sim­ple. Shield the lights and point them down­ward to re­duce glare. Also, switch from bluish “day­light” LED lights to softer yel­low ones.

Apache Corp., a part­ner with McDon­ald Ob­ser­va­tory in its Dark Skies Ini­tia­tive, has im­ple­mented those best prac­tices on all sites near the ob­ser­va­tory. Buy-in from Apache was crit­i­cal since its 350,000plus-acre Alpine High dis­cov­ery is the clos­est field to the ob­ser­va­tory. In late De­cem­ber, Apache had seven ac­tive drilling rigs there.

Mar­cus Bru­ton, man­ager of health, safety and en­vi­ron­ment for Apache, said he was skep­ti­cal at first of this dark-skies ef­fort. The con­ven­tional wis­dom in the oil patch, he said, was that more light was bet­ter.

“I had to see it for my­self,” Bru­ton said. “I had to see the light prop­erly aimed and il­lu­mi­nat­ing the lo­ca­tion the way that they do be­fore I re­ally be­lieved it.”

Now, Bru­ton said, he and the rest of the com­pany are con­vinced. Dark­skies light­ing is now part of new em­ployee and con­trac­tor ori­en­ta­tions. The com­pany’s in-house staff checks more than 1,000 lights a week to en­sure that they’re com­pli­ant.

Bru­ton said that when 100 per­cent com­pli­ance was an­nounced at a staff meet­ing for the first time, there was a round of ap­plause.

“When you get ’em all, that’s when you know that it’s more than just an ini­tia­tive, it’s more than just some­thing we talk about,” he said. “It’s in your cul­ture.”

RYAN MICHALESKO TNS

The Milky Way streams across the sky above the McDon­ald Ob­ser­va­tory, which is perched over­look­ing the West Texas plains.

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