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West Texas Drillers Asked to Cut Light Pollution

The Texas Railroad Commission is asking West Texas oil and gas operators to curb light pollution — particularly around the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory — so astronomers can see the stars at night.

Light pollution on the horizon from oil fields north of McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis on June 18.

Texas regulators are asking West Texas oil and gas producers to help preserve the region’s famously starry skies.

In a notice issued Wednesday, the Texas Railroad Commission called on Permian Basin operators to curb light pollution at worksites, particularly around the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory, a destination for world-renowned astronomers in the Davis Mountains near Fort Stockton.

Touting some of the darkest skies in North America and one of the world's largest telescopes — the Hobby-Eberly — that secluded outpost draws about 75,000 amateur stargazers each year, along with professionals who have made major discoveries, including, in 2012, the most massive black hole ever detected. The Hobby-Eberly recently underwent a $30 million upgrade as part of a project focusing on dark energy, the mysterious force propelling the accelerated expansion of the universe.

But astronomers and other dark skies fanatics fret that scattered light from drilling rigs, light towers and other equipment in recent years has drowned out entire sections of sky, threatening the view and research.

Ordinances in the seven counties surrounding the observatory require home and business owners to cut their light use at certain times. Most residents follow the rules, but such rules don’t apply to the operators whose lights can be seen from hundreds of miles away.

The Railroad Commission notice discusses the “cutting-edge” research at the observatory and refers companies to studies on how to address the problem relatively cheaply. 

“You are encouraged to consult these resources and consider ways to reduce stray light,” the notice states. “The solutions can be simple and cost-effective and can actually improve nighttime visibility and increase worker safety.”

Some stargazing oilmen — most notably Stacy Locke, president and CEO of Pioneer Energy Services — have sought to raise awareness of oilfield light pollution. Now, regulators are joining the effort. 

"The notice to operators is new," said Ramona Nye, a commission spokeswoman. "This is an ongoing collaboration between industry and the observatory that the Railroad Commission has helped facilitate."

Meanwhile, market forces may also help dim the lights — specifically, the plummeting oil prices that threaten to bring oilfields to a standstill. As of last Friday, just 152 drilling rigs were operating in the Permian Basin, according to Baker Hughes, which publishes weekly industry data. That was about half the total running a year ago. 

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