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Drilling boom brings 'light pollution' to Southwest's pristine night skies

FORT DAVIS, Texas -- The night sky in West Texas is one of the darkest in the continental United States. A clear night here offers astonishing views of stars, planets and the Milky Way and sets the stage for the McDonald Observatory, home of one of the world's largest telescopes.

But the oil and gas boom has put that pristine view at risk.

The more than 460 brightly lit drill sites in the Permian Basin, which stretches across West Texas into southeast New Mexico, generate a white glow visible for at least 40 miles that obscures the view of stars at the northeast horizon.

"For the longest time, the brightest thing in our sky besides the sun and the moon was El Paso at 160 miles away," said Bill Wren, special assistant to the observatory's superintendent.

Now the oil patch to the northeast gets in the way. It's not just rigs generating light, but all the associated equipment and facilities necessary for oil and gas exploration and production, including gas flares, disposal wells and completion units.

The University of Texas, Austin's McDonald Observatory was established in 1939 on a peak in the Davis Mountains. Its Hobby-Eberly Telescope is the largest in North America and is undergoing a $30 million upgrade to observe a much larger swath of space and probe dark energy.

With drilling in the Permian expanding, astronomers fret that the sky will continue to brighten and impair telescopes' ability to observe galaxies 9 billion to 11 billion light-years away. Already, anything fainter than the background night sky can no longer be seen.

"It's gone beyond just a concern," Wren said. "We are out of business without our dark skies."

Wren has made it his mission to ensure that as drilling activity expands, light pollution doesn't. He speaks to industry groups and conferences several times a month, explaining how well-lit work sites and dark skies can coexist.

"I don't use the words 'light pollution' very often," Wren said. "It's very descriptive of what's going on, but I find people tend to think I am going to chain myself to the nearest lamppost."

Instead, he focuses on issues that resonate with rig operators: safety and cost savings.

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Some rig lights are so bright, he said, that workers struggle to see. In one case, Wren said, a rig worker positioned a towel in front of a light so he could see the dials and gauges on his control panel.

Rigs are set up for a few weeks, then taken down and moved to a new spot. Wren finds that lights are thrown up without much thought as to where they are pointing or what they are illuminating. Floodlights often point horizontally rather than downward, spilling half their light into the sky.

Relatively simple adjustments, like aiming floodlights down or putting directional shields around bulbs, still allow ample light while creating safer working conditions and keeping light out of the night sky, Wren said. Taking additional steps to turn off lights when they aren't needed or switching to more efficient bulbs can further reduce energy usage and electricity bills.

At first, most people have no idea he's talking about, Wren said.

Indeed, David Blackmon, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, the research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, was unaware that lighting was an issue.

"It's a new subject for me," he said. "I don't think individual rigs would have much of an impact, but I guess collectively they could."

Once Wren gets audiences' attention, he finds they are usually sympathetic and want to help.

Take Stacy Locke, CEO of Pioneer Energy Services Corp., a San Antonio-based drilling and production services company.

"One of the great joys of West Texas are the stars horizon to horizon and a pitch-black sky," Locke said. "Once you've seen it, you want to preserve it."

But Locke said he didn't realize lighting in the Permian Basin was a problem until Wren raised the issue. He gave Wren access to one of his rigs and tasked one of his engineers to field-test different shields and lighting fixtures to find the best, most cost-efficient fixes.

"A lot of it is just common sense," Locke said. "The end result is you can actually end up with better lighting on these rigs without having to pollute the sky with light."

Since testing is ongoing, Locke is unsure how much it will cost to install night-sky-friendly lighting on rigs throughout the Permian, but he doesn't think it will be cheap. Even so, he said he thinks bigger operators would be willing to make the necessary changes.

"They want to do what's right for the environment," he said. "Most people in the industry do."

Given that there are so many different operators and facilities that come with an oil boom like housing and convenience stores, Locke thinks a county-level lighting ordinance would be the most effective way to minimize light pollution.

The seven counties surrounding the McDonald Observatory have ordinances requiring that new outdoor lighting be dark-sky-friendly. The catch is that rigs are exempt, since they're temporary structures.

Locke agreed that individual rigs are temporary, but their collective impact on the region is not.

"When a play like that takes off, you move in 200 rigs, go from location to location to location -- the lights never go off," he said. "There may come a day when lights go off -- 10 years from now, 20 years from now."

While the lighting ordinances have helped raise awareness about dark-sky-friendly lights in communities around the observatory, Wren wants to take a different approach with the energy industry.

"I don't want to beat them over the head with an ordinance," he said. "It's got to be economic; there's got to be incentive."

He hopes enough people get fired up about the issue and they can help spread the message so it reaches the boardrooms of companies like Shell and Exxon.

"Let's get to the majors and say: Look, you guys have been lighting your work since the 1950s the same way. Let's relight the industry in a better way."

Other skies

Wren's work with the energy industry is expanding beyond Texas. He's collaborating with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management to develop best management practices for operators drilling and mining on public lands in southeast Utah.

The Park Service has been monitoring light pollution and working on preserving dark skies in parks for years (Greenwire, June 11, 2012).

Since drilling and mining on BLM tracts can generate the closest bright lights to the most remote parks, it can have a noticeable impact on the natural lightscape and nocturnal ecology, said Chad Moore, NPS's night skies program manager. But the service is just beginning to reach out to the industry to discuss dark-sky-friendly practices, particularly around the Colorado Plateau.

NPS recently launched a campaign to protect the night sky over the plateau, which sprawls 130,000 square miles in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico and is home to 27 national park sites, five national forests and hundreds of thousands of acres of BLM land.

The agency wants to have an open, voluntary dialogue with industry, said Nate Ament, NPS's Colorado Plateau dark sky cooperative coordinator.

While clear night skies are increasingly scarce due to population growth and development, it's not an intractable problem.

"It's an environmental issue that is pretty easy to fix," Ament said. "Once you know what to do, you can make a difference pretty quick."

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