“The stars at night, are big and bright, (clap, clap, clap, clap), deep in the heart of Texas.”
Well, not all the time. But if some professors, astronomers, and oil and gas companies have their way, the stars will be as bright as fresh mountain snow.
If anyone has ever driven out to the drilling fields of west Texas, the Bakken in North Dakota, or even the refinery-filled suburbs of east Houston at night, they resemble something like a parking-lot carnival spread out for miles.
And that means problems for everyone from observatories to amateur stargazers due to light pollution.
That’s what sparked a group of astronomers at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of west Texas to create what they call the Dark Skies Initiative (DSI).
You see, much of the light generated from the nearby oil fields with thousands of rigs and other equipment such as light towers running 24/7 shines in all directions, when in fact, it really only needs to be pointed down to avoid lighting up a dark sky. It’s a problem that’s been growing each and every year, not just in the oil fields, but from big cities to suburbs to rural locations. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates that 80 percent of the American population have never seen the Milky Way due to the growing glow of artificial lights.
According to William Wren, special assistant to the superintendent of the Observatory, the cutting-edge research on astronomy and physics being conducted there is being threatened because the burgeoning oil and gas operations nearby give off too much light.
“We are working with drilling companies on voluntary ways to reduce light pollution,” Wren said. “About half of our sky is now significantly brighter than the background; the other half of it is brightening. I think we can mitigate it with the help of the energy companies. So far, they have been very cooperative.”
One of those companies is Light Tower Rentals (LTR), who provides portable and permanent lighting solutions for oil fields. In conjunction with several drilling companies, including Apache and Chevron, as well as the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, LTR is working with the McDonald Observatory to educate the oil and gas industry about the Dark Sky Initiative, the problems associated with bright lights and the benefits of the solutions the Observatory offers for drillers.
“Sometimes a solution to a problem isn’t nearly as difficult as it may seem,” said LTR President and COO Pat Bond. “In many cases where we operate, it’s simply a matter of doing our homework before we get out to the field and making sure that our lights are facing primarily downward, without creating unnecessary ambient light shining up to the sky and creating more of a problem for the Observatory. At the same time, we still have to ensure that all facilities are properly lit to safety standards. They’re both critical issues that we have been able to address very successfully.”
According to Wren, he’s very hopeful that the oil industry will continue to adapt, even with the massive oil finds that have occurred in the Permian and other close-by regions in the past year. “The physics is unyielding — objects appear exponentially brighter the closer they are, and the new fields could bring the oil industry much closer to the observatory,” Wren said. “Under ideal conditions, the observatory’s telescopes can detect a light bulb 100 miles away; at some point, though, the nighttime sky could become brighter than the stars and galaxies that we are trying to detect.”
But light pollution isn’t just a problem for the Observatories and other folks wanting to see stars. According to researchers at the McDonald Observatory, there are many other negative effects of light pollution.
“In the United States tens of billions of dollars in annual electricity costs are wasted shining lights upward at night. These numbers don’t even include the costs of harvesting fossil fuels to generate electricity,” Wren added. “Most of the energy required to power all of the wasted light comes from burning fossil fuels, contributing to other types of pollution.”
There are other costs as well. New studies point to dramatic health consequences from the disruption of the natural human day/night cycle. Unnatural light at night affects hormone production and reduces the strength of the immune system. Artificial light at night has also been shown to disrupt the mating, migration, and hunting behaviors of many different species, and consequently the ecological community as a whole.
It also affects people. Vision can be impaired by glare from overly bright light sources, reducing sensitivity to fine details and color perception, especially in elderly people. In addition, brighter lights cause shadows to appear darker. By pointing site lighting down, not only is light pollution lessened, but worksites become safer. The reduced glare improves work conditions.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Wren said, also noting that’s part of the reason that so many companies are willing to participate in the initiative. “You don’t have to enforce the light ordinances that already exist. By education and awareness, we can help people see that this is something that benefits everyone. Even something as easy as replacing bright flood lights with LED lights can have a positive effect. Dark Sky issue aside, we can help the industry light their nighttime activities in a more cost-effective, efficient and safer way.”
LTR’s involvement shows that cooperation among drilling and service companies and the scientific community, including the observatory, is a cooperative movement. LTR’s willing participation shows their commitment to both their industry as well as their environment.
“When we were first approached about being a part of the Dark Skies Initiative, we jumped at the chance to do our part to reduce light pollution,” said LTR’s Bond. “After all, light is our first name, it’s what started our business, and if we can do our part to help science in general and people in particular, it’s something we feel morally obligated to do.”
For more information about how you can help the University of Texas McDonald Observatory in its Dark Skies Initiative, visit the Observatory’s website. You can also contact Light Tower Rentals for information on how the company, in conjunction with other oil and gas industry companies, is helping to keep Texas skies beautiful. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 855-306-8855.