WASHINGTON — Environmentalists have seized upon a new weapon in their battle against energy development warning that bright lights from coal and fracking operations are polluting the darkness of night skies over national parks located several miles away.
The enthusiasm to protect dark nights as a “vanishing resource” has also captured the imagination of the National Park Service, which has created a relatively new federal agency to “conserve our heritage of starry skies.”
In fact, darkness is now part of the federal government’s mission in the park service’s “call to action” to move the agency into its second century of operations.
The “Starry Starry Night” program will “lead the way in protecting natural darkness as a precious resource and create a model for dark sky protection by establishing America’s first Dark Sky Cooperative on the Colorado Plateau …”
Environmentalists and the federal government are using the light pollution argument in their attempts to limit the expansion of a Utah coal operation that provides one-quarter of the electricity used by the city of Los Angeles.
According to documents obtained by The Colorado Observer, the federal government says the glare of nighttime lights as well as dust and noise from the machinery will negatively impact Bryce Canyon Nation Park located 12 miles away from the Alton Coal Mine Project in Kane County, Utah.
“The night skies of Bryce Canyon are a popular feature of the park, sought by thousands of park visitors each year,” said the Park Service’s comments on the environmental impact of the project.
Additionally, the park service says lights from the coal mining operation will shine brighter than the planet Venus and disrupt night skies in the Cedar Breaks National Monument located 25 miles away.
“Those who argue that the national parks should be able to control economic activity 25 miles from their borders are drunk with power,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research.
“They have no more legal claim to restrict others’ behavior in a 500 square mile circle around the park than any private landowner does, and this is just another way for opponents of affordable energy to argue against it,” Kish said.
The park service maintains that Bryce Canyon is more than just an “astronomer’s Mecca, it is the proverbial last Bald Eagle.”
“While the proposed Alton Coal Mine expansion will only increase the lowest one or two degrees of sky brightness by 31 percent … it could also be said that a bald eagle could still soar with a 31 percent reduction in primary wing feathers. However, if it were the last (or even the third to the last) bald eagle, it would certainly be folly to pluck even a single feather,” the park service said.
The agency wants all mining restricted to daylight hours only, and even then wants mining further curtailed to reduce the impact of “trucks rolling at crucial animal movement hours” during the day.
The park service also recommends that loading areas be contained “in a big box-type building; some light may escape but much less than if all operations are out-of-doors.”
In another case, environmentalists are mounting opposition to a natural gas fracking operation outside of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota badlands.
They argue that the lights from rigs, cell towers, and additional infrastructure will damage the parks’ famous night skies.
One environmentalist said the production site already resembles a scene from the science fiction movie “Blade Runner.”
Opponents of fracking operations in North Dakota also complain that lights from drill pads and flaring is so bright that the region resembles a major East Coast city on night satellite images from NASA.
“Many Americans have seen the pictures of North Korea and South Korea at night from space, which shows the starving economy of the authoritarian North with no lights while the free enterprise South is lit with activity,” Kish said. “The government is already too powerful in our daily lives, this would attempt to extend it to our nights, as well.”
The National Parks Conservation Association weighed in on the fracking project last month in a report titled “Balancing Energy Needs, Nature, and America’s National Heritage,” and said the park already suffers from “ill effects.”
“Oil rigs are visible from several parts of the park – and natural gas flaring has punctured what was once one of the darkest night skies in the entire park system,” the report said.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is a past vice chairman of the contentions parks conservation group that has filed numerous lawsuits to block energy development; an association for which she was criticized by Republicans during her recent Senate confirmation hearing.
The federal government says that dark nights in national parks are a strong economic driver that brings thousands of visitors to participate in star gazing programs.
“Many visitors to national parks report ‘never seeing night skies this remarkable’ or had ‘forgotten what the Milky Way looked like.’ Increasingly visitors are seeking out these experiences, and the (National Park Service) is proud to point a telescope skyward for them or guide them on a nighttime walk,” says the park service unit.
The initial government program to protect night skies began during the Clinton administration in 1999. It evolved into an entire unit of the Park Service in 2011 called the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division with staff located in Fort Collins and Lakewood, Colorado, as well as in Washington, D.C.
The program has yet to warrant a line-item description in annual budgets so its exact cost to taxpayers could not be determined.
However, Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, told the House Appropriations Committee on April 12 that “Dark skies would be further protected and restored with an increase of $700,00” in the 2014 fiscal year budget request.
“How’s that for waste?” said a House Republican staffer familiar with the dark skies initiative. “Funny stuff, if it wasn’t costing jobs.”
The Night Skies Division includes among its missions, a “scientific inventory of nighttime conditions,” to determine the impact of light pollution on scenic, wildlife and cultural resources.
“One need only to glimpse upon a nighttime view of our planet from space to see how pervasive artificial light is at night,” says the government’s night skies division website. “The brightening of the night by outdoor lighting affects a wide range of natural resources as well as human quality of life…”
Environmentalists say more than 30 parks are at risk from energy companies operating well outside of the federal government’s borders. The Night Skies Division maintains that the glow from major cities has been documented in parks more than 200 miles away.
“Even though the aggregate city light seen from a remote park 50 miles away would seem quite dim to a city-based observer, it is enough to cast obvious shadows and impede visibility for a park-based observer,” the Night Skies Division said.