Oil and Gas Development Dims Starry Skies

  • A pumpjack works throughout the night, bathed in the light from flares and electric lights on oil well pads near Watford City, North Dakota. The lights also illuminate low-hanging clouds, which is causing problems for stargazers. Photo: Andrew Cullen

November 6, 2015
by Emily Guerin | Inside Energy

Some of the best places in America to see the starry night sky also happen to be the best places to drill for oil. Think western North Dakota or West Texas—places far from any major cities. And as oil development has exploded in recent years, so has the amount of light pollution.

On a recent fall weekend, volunteer and astronomy buff Jay Bjerke was manning a massive telescope at Theodore Roosevelt National Park's Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival.

It was a great night to see the stars. With hardly any moon, the Milky Way was a bright cloud down the middle of the sky. But Bjerke was looking towards a butte on the horizon silhouetted by a soft glow.

"You can’t see stars between the horizon and 20 degrees up," he said, pointing. "That’s the oilfields."

Behind that butte, half a dozen natural gas flares were blazing just outside the park fence. Park Ranger Jeff Zylland has documented these and other sources of light pollution during the many summer nights he spent driving the gravel roads that encircle the park, looking for what was causing the mysterious glow.

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