by Ned Samson
Last month astronomers at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas noticed bright new lights on the horizon. At one of the world’s foremost locations for astronomical observation, home to the largest telescope in North America, this sort of intrusion into darkness is not taken lightly. In fact, in 2012 the state of Texas passed specific legislation mandating that lighting installed in a 57 mile radius of the observatory should not hinder the ability to do astronomical research. (House Bill 2857)
For people in the Davis Mountains, the brightest glow in their very dark sky has always been from El Paso and Ciudad Juáres, nearly two hundred miles west-northwest. But these new lights were brighter, and they were coming from the northeast. In that direction lies the Permian Basin, an area well-known for its history of oil and gas extraction. The lights came from new oilrigs operated by the Apache Corporation, which recently announced a significant discovery in the region.
Texas Railroad Commission had informed Apache, and all oil and gas producers, of the area’s particular lighting regulations. Apache’s new rigs did not immediately comply. Fort Davis amateur astronomer James Lowery contacted Apache, the Texas Railroad Commission, and the local government to inform them of the situation, and Bill Wren of the McDonald Observatory worked directly with Apache to help them improve their rig lighting.
Apache has shown it intends to be cooperative. Work lights have been fitted with shields and directed below the horizon, eliminating unnecessary sky glow and improving visibility on the rig. “We think we’ve got a win/win situation here,” says Wren about his discussions with the Apache Corporation. “It’s beneficial for them in a variety of ways.”
Despite these positive strides, there still remains the problem of light from gas flares, large plumes of fire produced from the burning of unused gas released from oil wells. According to Mr. Wren, Apache is testing an incinerator system that would cover and thereby eliminate light from the flares. On behalf of astronomers from around the world who rely on data from the McDonald Observatory to investigate the unknown universe; and on behalf of a West Texas community that prides itself on an uncommonly dark night sky, I hope progress continues.