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Observatory worries as Texas oil rigs light up skies

by JEFF MOSIER THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS | January 13, 2019 at 2:09 a.m.
The WindRiver building in Little Rock’s Riverdale offers views or the Arkansas River and the downtown skyline.

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, workers 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."

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 Pioneer Energy Services in San Antonio.

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 dark-skies compliant, he said: "We don't really know, but we're willing to try."

Pioneer Energy Services gave observatory workers 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."

Working with Pioneer Energy Services and 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.

It took some technical know-how to implement those broad ideas. But the final results have been endorsed by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, Texas Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institute. The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the industry, has previously sent dark-skies information to drillers near the observatory, and a spokesman said there are plans to do so again.

"Without mitigation, the gleam of light from oil and gas operations could compromise the research for which the McDonald Observatory is famous," the railroad commission wrote in a 2016 letter to operators.

Apache Corp. has implemented those best practices on all sites near the observatory. Buy-in from Apache was critical since its 350,000-plus-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. Dark-skies 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."

Although big, influential players are on board, the Permian Basin is filled with countless drillers and contractors. And the efficiency of lighting rigs isn't necessarily a foremost concern when scrambling for position in a booming oil field.

Wren jokes that it's "one down, 1,000 to go."

"We know the activity is growing closer," he said. "It'll be all the way down to Big Bend before all is said and done. ... They've gotten so good at directional drilling that they can pretty much get to anything."

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