SpaceX Starbase Expansion Plans Will Harm Endangered Species: FWS

A newborn plover chick stands next to one of its parents, Monty or Rose, in Montrose Beach on July 10, 2021.

John J. Kim | Forum News Service | Getty Images

SpaceX must take steps to monitor and mitigate its impact on endangered species and their habitat in order to gain approval for testing and commercial launch of its Spaceship Super heavy launch vehicle in Boca Chica, Texas according to US Fish and Wildlife Service documents obtained by CNBC.

Documents released by the federal agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show that recent declines in an endangered bird species, the piping plover, have already been correlated with SpaceX’s operations at the facility. of southern Texas.

The documents also reveal that SpaceX, at least for now, is reducing the amount of energy it plans to generate with useful-sized natural gas. power plant on the 47.4-acre launch site there.

The company did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the documents.

What’s at stake

Ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration must decide and is responsible for the final approvals and oversight of SpaceX in Texas.

The company’s ability to expand its business and conduct launches beyond its existing Falcon rockets depends on this FAA approval. So does the fate of SpaceX’s commercial engagements in Texas.

In February, CEO Elon Musk said his rocket and reusable satellite internet company could move its Starship Super Heavy launch business to the state of Florida and transform its Boca Chica spaceport into more of a research and development campus, if regulatory hurdles in Texas had proved insurmountable.

SpaceX sent its most recent known proposal for the Boca Chica plant to the FAA in September 2021. At the time, the company had said it wanted to build a new launch pad, a new landing pad, a power plant, plants. natural gas treatment and water infrastructure, including deluge systems and retention ponds used to cool the launch pad there.

SpaceX is seeking a permit and / or vehicle operator license from the FAA that would allow it to build new facilities and conduct launches of its larger Starship rockets near the cities of Brownsville and South Padre Island, Texas. The property is located on a small plot of land surrounded by wildlife refuge areas.

Before granting these licenses and permits, the FAA considers seeking out a number of other federal and state agencies and local environmental specialists.

Part of the FAA’s process includes consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the agency does not violate the Endangered Species Act if it gives SpaceX the green light for its proposed business.

Wildlife impacts

The FWS determined and wrote in a document known as a draft Biological and Conference Opinion (BCO): If SpaceX proceeded with the proposal sent to the FAA, it would impact some species protected under the Endangered Species Act, as well as hundreds of acres of their critical habitat, although the activity would not wipe out completely those species.

Of greater concern is the company’s anticipated impact on mating, migration, health and habitat of populations of plover, red knot, jaguarunds and ocelots. Disruptions and damage can be caused by anything from normal vehicular traffic, noise, heat, explosions and habitat fragmentation caused by construction, rocket testing and launches.

Several species of sea turtles are also of concern, but FWS has referred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for marine life expertise. One of the turtles is known as Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica. It is the most endangered sea turtle in the world.

The draft opinion warns that approximately 903.65 acres of critical habitat for the tubing plover surround the facility and that 446.27 acres will be lost due to the direct impact of SpaceX’s activity under the proposal submitted to the FAA.

Among its recommendations and requirements, the FWS wants SpaceX to closely monitor affected animal populations, limit construction and launch activities to specific seasons or times of the day and night, and use shuttles to reduce vehicular traffic for on-site workers.

The agency is also encouraging further research to understand the potential effects on the monarch butterfly, which in the United States is currently under consideration to be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

Overall, FWS’s opinion could be good news for SpaceX.

The agency requires very little in the way of spending, retention and other commitments from SpaceX, says Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who read a copy of the BCO draft.

He said: “The Fish and Wildlife Service appears to be bending over backwards to find a way to allow more of what has been a very damaging use of the Boca Chica site in regards to impacts on wildlife.”

Margolis said FWS has not asked for well-defined or extensive commitments from SpaceX regarding conservation. She indicated that FWS required SpaceX to donate a paltry $ 5,000 to an ocelot conservation group per year.

He also said that too many of the agency’s requests were merely recommendations and were not enforceable in the terms and conditions of any FAA permit.

“This is a company with very deep pockets,” added Margolis, “the least they could do is deal with this damage in a meaningful way.”

CNBC contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service press office, but officials were not immediately available to comment on Margolis’ claims.

Read the full draft of the BCO here: