Fossil Fuel Light Pollution May Drown Out the Stars at Texas’ McDonald Observatory

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

In Fort Davis, Texas, the Davis Mountains are home to the McDonald Observatory, a “multi-million dollar facility” (Santoro) where significant ongoing research is being threatened by light pollution from hydraulic fracturing and fossil fuels exploration, which has resulted in a 30% increase in the night sky’s brightness. If implemented, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline project is expected to contribute further to that trend. As a result, some of the darkest skies in the United States are being endangered. Furthermore, the projected pipeline project would negatively impact “one of the largest intact bioregions in the country,” according to Alyce Santoro’s report. It would also run through one of the few remaining areas in Texas that is unscathed by fossil fuel extraction and exploration.

Representatives of the oil and gas industries have given funds to the Observatory and its institutional partner, the University of Texas. The McDonald Observatory is ambivalent about efforts to halt the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. In the hopes of saving the Observatory and the dark night sky in Texas, the Observatory must make a decision: to continue to take funding from the very hands of those who may cause its termination, or to cut ties altogether and search for funding from other supporters.

The location of the McDonald Observatory is significant because the Davis Mountains are one of the darkest places in the United States. The entire Big Bend (an area the size of the state of Maryland, with a total population of only 18,000) is one of the largest intact bioregions in the country. In 2010, President Obama and then-President Calderon of Mexico signed a bi-national agreement to protect the rare, fragile Chihuahan Desert that spans both sides of the border.

Furthermore, Big Bend National Park provides significant support for the local economy, based on tourism. The construction of a new pipeline would affect not only the integrity of the bioregion but also the tourism-based economy that the Park supports.

It is vital for the public to understand the work that occurs at the McDonald Observatory. At this moment, important research is underway there, including, for example, an experiment titled the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), which aims to discover and understand a new form of energy. As Santoro reports, this energy “comprises 70% of all matter and energy in the universe.” Alarmingly, even the smallest amount of light added to the atmosphere near the facility could disrupt the research. Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline project, plans to construct a compression station twenty-nine miles away from the Observatory. Compression stations are well lit and often extremely bright.

If the McDonald Observatory is exploring answers to substantial questions regarding how Earth sustains life—questions that affect every living creature on Earth—then why is the proposed Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which would significantly impact the Observatory’s ability to operate, not being reported in corporate news as of March 2016? The CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, Kelcy Warren, is a board member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and his wife, Amy Warren, is on the board of Humanities Texas. Warren also has close ties with the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, having given him money for both his gubernatorial and re-election campaigns.

Santoro Alyce, “Astronomical Research Star-Crossed by Oil and Gas,” Defend Big Bend, March 7, 2016,
Dahr Jamail, “Does the US Government Actually Regulate Pipelines?,” December 7, 2015,

Student Researcher: Abbey Hybl (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Robert Williams (University of Vermont)