McDonald Observatory Works with Catalyst Midstream Partners to Protect Dark Skies
20 July 2022
FORT DAVIS, Texas – West Texas and the Big Bend region are known for their starry night skies, made possible in part due to ongoing efforts to preserve them. Recently, McDonald Observatory and the non-profit organization Texan by Nature recognized the efforts of Catalyst Midstream Partners (“Catalyst”), a joint venture between Howard Energy Partners (“HEP”), and Devon Energy Corporation (“Devon”), to reduce light emissions at their County Line Processing Plant near Orla, Texas.
Catalyst and HEP worked alongside McDonald Observatory and Texan by Nature throughout 2021 developing and executing a comprehensive plan to improve lighting practices at the facility. These efforts culminated in a significant, observable reduction in light emissions from the facilities and the certification of the County Line Processing Plant in May 2022 as “Night Sky Friendly” under McDonald Observatory’s Dark Skies Initiative.
“Consistent with our core values, HEP is always looking for ways to be a good steward of our environment and to give back to the communities where we live and work. The Dark Skies program not only helps us achieve this goal, but also makes the facility safer,” said Jarrell Shircliff, Director of Operations for HEP.
Most energy industry operations in West Texas operate at all hours, and thus install outdoor lighting for worker safety. Poorly designed outdoor lights, however, spill much of their light into the night sky and cause blinding glare for workers on the ground. By aiming lights down and shielding them, as well as using a more amber color of light, light stays where it is useful and visibility is increased. These practices also eliminate energy waste and can result in cost savings.
“It’s about a dark sky, not a dark ground,” says Stephen Hummel, Dark Skies Initiative Coordinator at McDonald Observatory. “The solutions to light pollution are simple, but have a positive impact on worker safety, as well as the observatory’s ability conduct research and outreach programs.”
McDonald Observatory routinely measures the amount of light pollution detectable from the observatory campus, as well as from other locations across the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve. Light pollution from energy sector activity in the Permian Basin peaked in 2018 and declined by an estimated 20 percent by mid-2021, where it remains today. The reduction in light pollution is in part due to improvements in outdoor lighting practices, as well as reductions in flaring and changes in industry activity. Present levels of light pollution do not impact research at the observatory, but conditions will continue to be monitored.
HEP, as operator of the Catalyst facilities, joins a growing list of energy companies that have adopted McDonald Observatory’s recommended lighting practices for oil and gas operators, such as Apache, Devon Energy, and Diamondback Energy. The recommended practices have been endorsed by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, the American Petroleum Institute, and others. Facilities that adopt the recommended lighting practices are eligible for McDonald Observatory’s Lighting Recognition Program, as well as certification from Texan by Nature.
“At Texan by Nature, we firmly believe that businesses can operate in ways that benefit not only their bottom line, but also our natural resources," said Jenny Burden, the organization’s Director of Development. “Since 2018, we have worked with McDonald Observatory to spread the word about the importance of Dark Skies lighting. We applaud HEP for implementing these best practices, and taking a leadership role in the region.”
Resources to learn more about light pollution and the recognition program are available at mcdonaldobservatory.org/darkskies.
Stephen Hummel, Dark Skies Initiative Coordinator
The University of Texas at Austin
Michael Johnston, Director of Communications
Howard Energy Partners