SpaceX Starbase expansion plans will hurt endangered species: FWS

A newly hatched plover chick stands next to one of his parents, Monty O’Rose, in Montrose Beach on July 10, 2021.

John J Kim | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

SpaceX must take steps to track and mitigate its impact on endangered species and their habitats in order to obtain approvals for the test and commercial launch of its spacecraft. Starship The heavy-lift ultra-high launch vehicle in Boca Chica, Texas, according to documents from the US Fish and Wildlife Service obtained by CNBC.

The documents, released by the federal agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the recent decline in an endangered bird species, the pipe plover, has indeed been linked to SpaceX’s activity at the South Texas facility.

The documents also reveal that SpaceX is working, for now at least, to reduce the amount of power it plans to generate with utility-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 is at stake

Ultimately, the FAA must decide and be 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 missiles, is dependent on approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). So is the fate of SpaceX’s commercial commitments in Texas.

In February, CEO Elon Musk He said his reusable rocket and satellite company could shift the Starship Super Heavy launch activity to Florida, and turn the Boca Chica Spaceport into more of a research and development campus, if regulatory hurdles in Texas prove insurmountable.

SpaceX sent its latest known bid for the Boca Chica facility to the Federal Aviation Administration in September 2021. At the time, the company said it wanted to build a new launch pad, a new landing platform, a power plant, natural gas processing facilities, and water infrastructure, including immersion systems and storage ponds Used to cool the launch pad there.

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

Before granting these licenses and permits, the FAA considers research from a number of other federal and state agencies and local environmental professionals.

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

Wildlife Effects

FWS identified – and wrote in a document known as a draft Biological Conference (BCO) opinion – that if SpaceX went ahead with the proposal it sent to the FAA, it would affect some species protected under the Endangered Species Act, as well as hundreds of acres of their critical habitat, although the activity would not completely eradicate on those species.

Of greater concern is the company’s projected impact on the mating, migration, health, and habitat population of the pipe plover, red knot, jaguarundi, and ocelot. Turbulence and harm can be caused by everything from normal vehicular traffic to noise, heat, explosions, and habitat fragmentation from construction, missile testing and launches.

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

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

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

The agency is also encouraging further research to understand the potential effects on the monarch butterfly, which is now considered a threatened or endangered species in the United States.

Overall, FWS’ opinion may be good news for SpaceX.

The agency requires very little spending, conservation and other commitments by 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 figure out a way to allow more of what has been a very harmful use of Boca Chica in terms of impacts on wildlife.”

Margolis said FWS has not asked for well-defined or significant commitments from SpaceX when it comes to conservation. He noted that FWS is asking SpaceX to donate as little as $5,000 to the ocelot preservation group annually.

He also said that many of the agency’s requests were merely recommendations, and not enforceable under the terms and conditions of the FAA’s final authorization.

“This is a company with very deep pockets, and the least they can do is address these damages in a meaningful way,” Margolis added.

CNBC has contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service press office, but officials were not immediately available for comment on Margulies’ assertion.

Read the full BCO draft here:

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