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Upgraded Lighting Practices in the Oil and Gas Industry Help to Protect the Night Skies at McDonald Observatory and Improve Visibility in the Field


Upgraded Lighting Practices in the Oil and Gas Industry Help to Protect the Night Skies at McDonald Observatory and Improve Visibility in the Field

William Wren, M.Ed.Special Assistant to the SuperintendentThe University of Texas at AustinMcDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory is a 500-acre satellite campus of the University of Texas at Austin, located in the heart of the Davis Mountains in far West Texas. This world-class astronomical research facility is home to some of the world’s largest telescopes and darkest night skies. In recent years, the glow of nighttime lighting from increased oil and gas activity in and around the Permian Basin has begun to threaten these skies. In 2015, the Observatory adopted an All Sky Photometry system, originally developed by the National Park Service, that distinguishes between natural and artificial sources of light, and shows a brightening trend in the night sky toward the Permian.

An ongoing effort, the Dark Skies Initiative, seeks to raise awareness within the industry about the value of protecting the skies for McDonald Observatory. Adoption of night sky friendly lighting practices has the added benefits of cost-efficiency, improved visibility, and increased worker safety in the oilfield.

The traditional industry approach to lighting, i.e., “the brighter, the better,” typically results in excessive, even debilitating glare, and light spilling offsite, wasted into the surround area and into the sky. The use of shielded and properly aimed, "full-cutoff" light fixtures, both helps protect the night skies over the Observatory, and serves the industry by directing light to where it is needed and wanted, and not into workers eyes.

The Observatory is surrounded by seven counties, each of which have outdoor lighting ordinances intended to protect the dark night skies for ongoing astronomical research: Jeff Davis, Brewster, Presidio, Hudspeth, Culberson, Reeves, and Pecos, some 28,000 square miles in area. Instead of pursuing enforcemnt, existing ordinances are used as vehicles for education and awareness.

In recent years, with the cooperation of numerous oil and gas companies, lighting demonstrations in the oilfield have successfully shown the multiple advantages of modernizing practices. In its 2016, "Notice to Operators", a reminder of the need to protect the night skies for the Observatory, the Railroad Commission of Texas stated:

“The solutions can be simple and cost effective and can actually improve nighttime visibility and increase worker safety.”

In 2017, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association partnered with McDonald Observatory to publish “Recommended Lighting Practices” for the oil and gas industry. In 2018, the Texas Oil and Gas Association endorsed the document by becoming a coequal author, and a major operator produced a complementary video to focus on the crucial visual nature of the topic.