Bill Wren

Photo Credit: Connor Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

The stars in West Texas are now competing with the glow from oil drilling rigs and gas flares in the Permian Basin, the largest oil field in the state.

UT’s McDonald Observatory teamed up with Pioneer Energy Services to address the issue of light pollution interfering with the observatory’s research abilities. Last September, the two groups published a report on good light practices, including shielding light fixtures so that the glare does not face skyward.

Oil rigs line the northeast horizon of the observatory, and light fixtures illuminate their activity 24/7. High oil and gas prices initiated the increased construction of oil rigs in West Texas’ Permian Basin during the early part of the 2010s, said Stacy Locke, CEO of Pioneer Energy Services.

“If you go look at the price of oil and the rig count in the U.S., the Permian Basin had explosive growth starting from 2010 and then into 2012 to 2014 because the worldwide demand for oil really increased, which caused oil prices to shoot up,” Locke said. “As the oil price rose, the rig count rose with it.”

Observatory spokesman Bill Wren said he began noticing the additional light clouding the observatory in 2010.

“We have data going back to 2009 that shows the sky brightening before you could really see it visually,” Wren said. “It corresponds to the boom in oil and gas exploration around the Permian Basin. For decades, the brightest artificial source of light we could see was the combined lights of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez — 160 miles off west. Now it’s safe to say our northeast horizon [is the brightest].”

The oil companies are willing to help with reducing light pollution, Locke said.

“Once we proved we could make a drilling rig dark-sky compliant, we went out with Bill Wren, and I introduced him to a number of our oil and gas clients and explained to them this concern,” Locke said. “Once they became aware of the issues, they were willing and wanting to help fix the problem.”

The observatory is in the process of a $30 million upgrade to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope to study dark energy — an unknown force accelerating the expansion of the universe — but light pollution might thwart its efforts. Astronomy senior research scientist Matthew Shetrone said despite the telescope upgrade, light pollution might inhibit astronomers’ ability to study dark energy. 

“In order to study dark energy, we need to be able to detect galaxies so faint they can not be detected from imaging from the ground,” Shetrone said. “We will be using spectrography. There may be 30 photons we detect from that very, very distant galaxy, maybe 30 billion light years away. … So if we have a brighter sky because of light pollution, that adds noise to the 30 photons we want to collect from a distant galaxy and can get washed out.”

The University’s McDonald Observatory, one of the tops centers for research and education, is located in the Davis Mountains of West Texas making for ideal star gazing conditions. The observatory is currently facing threats of light pollution from growing industries in the surrounding community. 

Photo Credit: McDonald Observatory | Daily Texan Staff

The University’s McDonald Observatory rests in a seven-county light ordinance zone, deep in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, protecting it from the light pollution that plagues most cities and making for some of the darkest skies in the country.

Founded in the 1930s, the observatory is one of the leading centers for astronomical research, education and outreach, boasting more than six advanced telescopes.

Bill Wren, a spokesman for the observatory, said on any given night you can see thousands of stars there.

“The places you can go to see a naturally dark sky are vanishing,” Wren said. “We are raising people that have never seen a naturally dark sky.”

Wren said this is because light pollution, created when light is shone upward into the sky, interferes with our ability to see clearly.

Irresponsible lighting wastes energy and costs Americans an estimated $2.2 billion a year, according to the International Dark-Sky Association. The initiative was launched in 2010 to raise awareness about the effects of light pollution.

“This is not an anti-light campaign,” Wren said. “It’s about putting the light where it’s needed.”

Light ordinances encourage shielding light, aiming it downward and using solar-powered, LED lights when possible.

The biggest threat to dark skies at the observatory is the growing oil and natural gas industry in the Permian Basin region, Wren said. According to the Railroad Commission of Texas, more than 9,000 drilling permits were issued in the Permian Basin in 2012 alone.

“In the spectrum of environmental concerns, light pollution is probably low on the list for oil and natural gas companies,” said Colt McCarthy, who owns a drilling supply company. “People don’t really pay attention until it affects their pocketbooks.”

Chevron spokeswoman Dolores Vick said McDonald approached the energy company earlier this year to discuss its lighting practices near the observatory.

“We are researching current lighting practices used in our West Texas operations to determine if there are ways to safely reduce light that emanates from our operations,” Vick said.

In Austin, more than 400 miles away from the observatory, the city set aside $15 million in 2012 to replace the bulbs and fixtures on approximately 70,000 street lamps to combat light pollution in Central Texas.

By 2015, Austin Energy anticipates all the city’s street lamps will be automated, with LED bulbs and flat-glass lenses that focus light downward instead of scattering it toward the sky. The “smart street lights” will conserve energy, as well as reduce light pollution.

“We are one of the few cities in the country that are both automating their street lights and making them dark sky compliant,” Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said.

With the observatory more than a six-hour drive away, Wren said the best place to see a dark sky in the Austin area is at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Wren said pilots are particularly opposed to bright lights and use shielded lighting to safely depart and land planes.

The astronomy department also hosts Wednesday night public viewings with its telescope on the roof of Robert Lee Moore Hall, as well as Friday and Saturday night viewings at Painter Hall.