Drilling Rigs Lighting Up West Texas Night Skies

Researchers say lights from oil and gas rigs are creeping into one of the darkest night sky areas in the nation.

By Luke QuintonMay 7, 2015 9:33 am

Texas natives and newbies alike know the song: “the stars at night/are big and bright/deep in the heart of Texas.” But in West Texas, known for its famed astronomy research center and its star parties, how much longer will the stars outshine growing light pollution?

To answer this question and more, the Texas Standard spoke with Angela Kocherga, Border Bureau Chief with Gannett Broadcasting.

The McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis, is one of the darkest spots in the continental United States, and one of the darkest in the world. There are laws in place to keep the skies dark in the area.

However, new oil and gas rigs have been edging closer and closer in the last few years. In 2012 alone, the state issued 5,000 drilling permits in the area. The problem? Drilling rigs come with thousands of bright lights that operate around the clock. But Kocherga says light doesn’t need to be within the 28,000-acre area to register.

“They shine up into the sky. You can see the glow – it’s been recorded by the McDonald Observatory – on the horizon,” Kocherga says. “They thought it might be coming from big cities.”

One thing’s for sure, the closer the drilling industry builds to the Observatory, the more it will affect future astronomy research. Currently, researchers are upgrading their telescope to look into dark energy and how our universe is expanding and why.

Are drillers willing to do something about the lights? Kocherga says yes.

“There really is an education process going on to get everyone, but especially the oil industry, to convert their lighting in that region to dark-sky friendly lighting,” she says. “It’s shielded. It focuses down on the ground rather than shining up and flooding the night sky.”