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The stars at night are still not as brights as they could be

We need to do better.

In the high mountains of a wild desert, day drains from the sky and night lights appear like halos on the horizon.

There’s no moon. Just Mercury chasing the setting sun in the west, Jupiter rising to the east and another golden light emerging on the northern horizon.

The view from the McDonald Observatory, considered the crown jewel of the University of Texas System, includes the glow from the Permian Basin oil field, incandescent with the work of 24-hour drilling, fracking and gas flaring.

Four in every 10 drilling rigs working in the U.S. are in the Permian Basin, and the prolific oil province is creeping closer to the observatory, where astronomers depend on the veil of desert night in the Davis Mountains of the Big Bend region.

“It just feels like a tidal wave coming at us, because you know, 10 years ago, we looked up to the north and we saw a dark starry sky and now we see this glow,” said Bill Wren, special assistant to the observatory superintendent. The oil field lights don’t hinder astronomical research – the McDonald Observatory remains a place of exceptional darkness. The sky’s zenith, where astronomers look to the edge of the observable universe, remains free of light pollution.

What worries astronomers is the idea that the oil field, the most productive in the U.S., will keep marching toward it, and worse, glowing brighter and chewing up more of the sky.

A new light pollution measurement just released by the observatory shows how much brighter the night sky is than it should be – 18.5 percent above the background glow of natural features.

“It’s only down toward the horizon where it’s polluted, and astronomers aren’t pointing the telescopes down close to the horizon,” Wren said. “They’re observing high overhead. It’s still an extremely dark sky for astronomy. It’s a little spooky to see that glow growing and coming this way.”

See here and here for previous blogging on this topic. The good news is that help may be on the way.

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association, in collaboration with the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, recently issued its recommended lighting practices for oil and gas operations in the seven counties that surround the observatory.

“We’re very excited,” Ben Shepperd, president of the PBPA, said in a phone interview as he was returning to Austin after hosting the association’s annual golf tournament.

“We’ve been working with the observatory for a couple of years and had a number of meetings with observatory officials, operators and service companies to come up with a good set of recommended practices,” he said.

The recommendations were prepared by the Dark Skies Advisory Group, made up of PBPA members, representatives of the observatory and the public. The group was formed to address the needs and concerns of the observatory and help develop a plan to help keep West Texas skies dark and help the work of the observatory.

PBPA’s board of directors approved the recommendations, which should be implemented after the Texas Legislature ends its 2017 session, Shepperd said.

Lighting type, coloring and direction — including guidance to keep lights pointed below the horizon to help mitigate light pollution — are among the key recommendations.

Shepperd said the recommendations should help the observatory “and are workable, especially from a safety standpoint.”

“One thing we learned is those bright white lights are actually bad for your eyes,” he said.

He said proper lighting could improve safety around drilling sites, which involve lots of tools and heavy machinery.

The recommendations also encourage the use of internal combustion units, which would reduce the need for flares.

Operators active in the region should easily adapt the recommendations because they don’t involve additional costs or major costs, “it’s just different equipment,” Shepperd said.

You can see the Recommended Lighting Practices report here. There really is nothing complicated or expensive in there – a lot of it is just common sense – so one hopes this will help. As that Midland Reporter-Telegram story notes, there will be further meetings in the summer to assess progress and see what else can be done. All in all pretty positive, and one hopes that the next story of this genre will be about how these guidelines have made a difference. Note too that what this group recommends is also largely applicable to homes and neighborhoods in urban and suburban areas. You too can do your part to cut down on light pollution.

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