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RRC Reminds Permian Operators of Astronomers’ Need For Dark Skies

The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) is reminding oil and gas producers in a seven-county region of the Permian Basin in West Texas that they share the sky with an astronomical observatory that works best when the sky is kept as dark as possible.

RRC said it has been contacted about concerns related to light originating from oil and gas rigs and other activity in the Permian Basin, specifically near the University of Texas McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. Since 2010, the development associated with the exponential growth of oil and gas drilling and production in the Permian Basin has generated light that reflects off of the clouds above.

The McDonald Observatory is a state-of-the-art facility where astronomers focus on measuring objects at the very edge of the observable universe. Without mitigation, the light from oil and gas operations could compromise the research for which the McDonald Observatory is famous, RRC said.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at the observatory recently completed a $25 million upgrade and, now using more of its primary mirror, has achieved "first light" as the world’s third-largest optical telescope. "This upgrade makes HET the most powerful wide-field spectroscopic telescope worldwide, and we expect unique scientific discoveries from it," observatory Director Taft Armandroff said late last year.

To protect the dark environment around the observatory, the Texas Legislature in 2011 revised Section 240.032 of the Local Government Code to require the commissioners court of a county, any part of which is within 57 miles of the observatory, to adopt orders regulating the installation and use of outdoor lighting in any unincorporated territory of the county. The seven counties where this requirement applies are Brewster, Culberson, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Pecos, Presidio, and Reeves.

The observatory also is working with its neighbors to promote simple solutions to minimize lighting impacts. Stacy Locke with Pioneer Energy Services and Bill Wren with the University of Texas McDonald Observatory have developed a report titled "Oilfield Lighting Can Coexist with Dark Skies."

As part of a project to mitigate light impacts, Pioneer agreed to upgrade lighting systems by adding glare shields and aiming lights downward. "...McDonald Observatory has been granted access to a working rig, PES Rig No. 29, beginning in July 2013," the report said. "For all intents and purposes, Rig No. 29 was chosen randomly. It is an example of a typical drilling rig, and the light fixtures in use are representative of lighting found commonly throughout the oilfield."

The report details other options for mitigating light pollution in the oil field.

Bill Wren, special assistant to the observatory superintendent, told NGI's Shale Daily that the skies around the observatory overall are about 10% brighter than they were five or six years ago.

"It's still a very dark site. It's not an existential threat," he said of the basin and associated light-generating development. "We can still do our science. If it were to get much worse, we would have a problem. We've had great cooperation from the industry...We're hopeful for the future."

Exploration drilling is down in the Permian now, of course, but Wren said that and the associated reduction in light pollution are only temporary. "It will pick up again," he said. "It's been an up and down proposition for 100 years or more...There's a lot less drilling going on, but production is still going on full steam. There's a lot of permanent lighting out there that is not just drilling rigs...gas plants and disposal wells that are all well lit and more permanent. That's the kind of stuff we are hopping we can also have an impact on."

Wren said the lighting solutions the observatory is working on with operators in the area are in the industry's best interest as they lower electricity consumption and improve visibility and safety for workers in the field.

The potential for light pollution from the planned Trans-Pecos Pipeline project has also been another area of concern for the observatory and area residents (see Daily GPIMay 21, 2015).

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