Fracking Boom Brightens West Texas Sky, Putting Astronomy Research in Jeopardy

Light from the Alpine High oil and gas field makes it harder for scientists at the McDonald Observatory to do their work. The observatory is working with oil producers to find solutions.

By Alain StephensApril 17, 2017 8:32 pm

The University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory is located in the remote Davis Mountains of west Texas, and it sits under some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S. Texas’ fracking boom, while great for the oil and gas industry and the state’s coffers, is putting this darkness in jeopardy.

The Alpine High oil and gas field is 30 miles northeast of the observatory, and it could be the biggest energy field to date in the Permian Basin, says Zoë Schlanger, an environment reporter at Quartz.

“It takes a lot of lighting to make a gas field work,” she says. “When you have very sensitive telescopes, even just a few photons of spare light can make research really difficult.”

In the last decade alone – since the West Texas drilling boom began – the background light around McDonald Observatory has increased by 10 to 15 percent, meaning that it is no longer the darkest major observatory in the world.

“That’s enough to worry researchers,” Schlanger says. So far, the loss of darkness has yet to actually impede any research projects. In order for that to happen, the background brightness would need to increase by more than 150 percent.

Researchers at the observatory are working with oil and gas companies to prevent such a light increase from happening. They have discussed putting hoods on light fixtures in the oil fields, and minimizing the amount of gas flares.

“A certain amount of flaring is needed when you’re developing a gas field, and there’s not really a way around it,” Schlanger says. “It’s also 24 hours, so it’s impossible not to flare at night.”

Apache Corp., the Houston-based company developing Alpine High, has said it is trying to get flaring down to a minimum. It is also working to ensure that its light bulbs meet guidelines proposed by the observatory.

But these changes aren’t cheap – Schlanger says it can cost $15,000 per rig to put hoods on light fixtures.

“It’s a choice that companies aren’t forced to make – there’s no legal requirement – but they say they’re going to do their best,” she says.
Written by Molly Smith.