Monday, March 7, 2016

Astronomical Research Star-crossed by Oil and Gas

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
By Alyce Santoro

The McDonald Observatory – a world-renowned astronomical research center – is located in the remote Davis Mountains of far west Texas where some of the darkest night skies in the United States can be found. Alarmingly, this vital multi-million dollar facility may soon be rendered obsolete by light pollution due to increased activity from the fossil fuel extraction industry.

Over the course of the past decade, the brightness of the night sky in Fort Davis, Texas has increased by approximately 30% due to the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing and related activities in the Permian Basin. That number is set to increase dramatically if the owners of the proposed 42" Trans-Pecos Pipeline project get their way. The 143-mile “intrastate” pipeline from Coyanosa, Texas to the border at Presidio/Ojinaga – designed to deliver US fracked gas to Mexico where much if it will be exported to Asian markets – would cut through one of the largest intact bioregions in the country, and one of the last places in Texas largely untouched by the oil and gas industry.

In addition to disrupting the area’s tourism-based economy and disturbing thousands of acres of cattle pasture, grasslands, rare and endangered species habitat, and ancient archeological sites, among the major casualties to the region and the world should the Big Bend become industrialized would be the McDonald Observatory’s ability to remain in operation.

While the pipe itself is set to be underground and the construction process may involve only temporary lighting, Trans-Pecos Pipeline project manager Rick Smith stated at a town hall meeting in July 2015 that a compression station would be located near the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Area in Presidio County, 29 miles south of the Observatory. Compression stations are typically brightly-lit. Even this problem may be surmountable, should the company be willing to comply with the Observatory's DarkSkies Initiative. However, there is a larger concern: that this pipeline would provide the infrastructure necessary to open the region to fracking. Rigs emit light due to flaring and the use of brightly-illuminated night time operations, storage wells, and disposal facilities. The Observatory has provided some guidelines for fracking operators interested in voluntarily limiting their impact.

The value of research being conducted at the Observatory cannot be overestimated. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), for example, is at the forefront of research into a newly-discovered but little-understood form of energy that comprises 70% of all matter and energy in the universe. Just a few additional photons of ambient light added to the atmosphere in the vicinity of the facility can complicate the data. After a several-year, $30 million renovation, the Hobby-Eberly – the third largest optical telescope in the world – is preparing to go back "on sky" in early fall 2016. By then pipeline construction – if it proceeds according to the company's schedule – would be well underway.

With enough public outcry, it is not too late to have this project stopped or at least re-routed. Possible alternative routes take the pipeline closer to El Paso along existing easements that already contain similar pipelines.

One might imagine that the Observatory's benefactors would be leading the charge against the Trans Pecos Pipeline – however, the University of Texas receives some of its funding from the oil and gas industryfracking even takes place on University-owned lands. Kelcy Warren – CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Trans-Pecos Pipeline – sits on numerous State and University boards...including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

For the Observatory, it’s an existential crisis: continue to accept support from the very industry that is degrading its ability to operate, or denounce Big Oil and Gas, risk losing known sources of funding, and hope backers can be found elsewhere.

Ironically, it is from the kind of research being conducted at McDonald Observatory that we can begin to comprehend the extreme rarity of the conditions that sustain life here on Earth. From observations of Venus and Mars – both within our solar systems’ “habitable zone” – we can understand the impact of slight changes to planetary ecosystems, and how such conditions would affect life as we know it.

In the case of Earth, we know that our planet is in the midst of catastrophic changes, and we know the primary cause: overconsumption of fossil fuels by a relatively concentrated percentage of human beings. How can this same segment of our species be wise enough to invent machines that can gaze out to the edge of the known universe 45 billion light years away, or back in time to the Big Bang over 13 billion years ago, and yet remain seemingly overwhelmed by the prospect of finding alternatives to the behaviors that pose an immanent threat to all life on Earth? If solutions are not implemented soon, our atmosphere will no longer be conducive to star gazing, or any other form of human activity. The rationale for inaction on the part of the causative agents of our collective predicament may remain one of the greatest mysteries in the 13 billion year history of the universe.

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