Deep in West Texas, night still falls black, but now there’s a glow to the northeast — the oil field.
From the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, astronomers can see not only into deep space, but they also can observe the glaring lights of drilling rigs, gas flares and well completion operations in the Permian Basin, the state’s largest oil field.
“We’re getting light pollution out of all of this oil and gas activity,” Stacy Locke, CEO, president and director of San Antonio-based Pioneer Energy Services, recently said in a speech at the American Association of Drilling Engineers’ national technical conference. “It’s just potentially going to be an enormous problem for the McDonald Observatory and we can’t let that happen as an industry.
“It’s one of those gems that we need to protect.”
Between 2010 and 2014, around 5,000 drilling permits were issued in Reeves, Culberson and Pecos counties, north of the observatory, during the state’s latest wave of oil drilling.
Together, Pioneer Energy, a San Antonio-based contract driller and oil field services company, and McDonald Observatory have been studying the sky glow problem for about a year and a half, testing lighting on drilling rigs that is still safe but doesn’t send light skyward like a beacon.
Locke and Bill Wren, a special assistant to the superintendent at the McDonald Observatory, authored a recent paper on the topic for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, which was presented at the group’s conference in Denver in March.