Environment Engineer Says Assessment of SpaceX Boca Chica Expansion is Deceptive, Incomplete and Illegal

Starhopper aborts a hop attempt at Boca Chica. (Credit: SpaceX webcast screen shot)
  • Assessment authors accused of submitting false emissions numbers
  • Report leaves out entire structures and their environmental impacts
  • FAA accused of illegally fast tracking approval using less rigorous environmental assessment than required by law

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

An environmental engineer has raised serious questions about the completeness and appropriateness of a draft programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) that covers SpaceX’s major expansion of its Starbase rocket launch and test site in Boca Chica, Texas.

According to a 12-part series on the blog ESG Hound, the assessment that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released for public comment last month violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to evaluate all of the impact of the project, which sits amidst environmentally sensitive saltwater wetlands.

The series claims that the FAA is illegally fast tracking approval of SpaceX’s plan by improperly using a far less rigorous and time consuming form of environmental review than required by NEPA. The review is intended for use when there are minor environmental impacts resulting for small changes of a facility’s use. SpaceX’s plans involve significant changes to existing uses and will have major environmental impacts, the website said.

The series identifies a number of significant omissions and errors in the PEA released by the FAA for public comment. These deficiencies include:

  • the PEA fails to mention the impacts of constructing a pipeline required to fuel a new natural gas treatment plant and a power station to be built at Boca Chica;
  • supplying Boca Chica with fuel will require hundreds of newly drilled or fracked oil wells whose environment impacts are not included in the document;
  • the assessment grossly underestimates emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases (i.e., methane); and,
  • the document fails to mention the existence and size of oil storage tanks, amine oiler heater, thermal oxidizer, methanol storage tanks, process flare, produced water storage and disposal and condensate loading equipment;

Tech Crunch has published a story questioning the omission from the PEA of how Starbase would be supplied with fuel.

Failing to mention this in the PEA is unusual, and possibly contravenes the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), says Pat Parenteau, professor of law and senior counsel in the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School.

“NEPA is what we call the look-before-you-leap law,” Parenteau said. “It’s designed to inform federal decision-makers about the environmental impacts of their actions and ways to avoid them.”

A pipeline is the usual way to transport natural gas to a power station. An official at a federal agency told TechCrunch that earlier this year SpaceX inquired about reusing a defunct natural gas pipeline running through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“They want to reactivate the pipeline for transporting methane via pipeline rather than by truck as they do now,” wrote the official, who asked not to be named.

Tech Crunch reports that the pipeline in question was permanently abandoned in 2016. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley uses it to house fiber optic cable that supply Internet service.

The ESG Hound series says that the 4-inch pipeline is too small to supply Starbase with the fuel it needs. The fact that it was permanently abandoned also means it can’t be used for that purpose again. So, SpaceX needs to build a pipeline or use thousands of trucks per year to ship the fuel in. Neither option is mentioned in the PEA document released by the FAA.

The FAA told Tech Crunch that the environmental assessment was done in compliance with NEPA and other applicable laws and regulations. SpaceX did not reply to requests for comment.

SpaceX’s planned use of the Boca Chica has evolved from what the FAA originally approved in 2014. The original Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) included plans for up to 12 launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from the site, which is located just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The FAA approval also allowed SpaceX to conduct flights of experimental vehicles, a provision that largely went unnoticed at the time. Over the past seven years, the company dropped plans to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and has instead the used the facility to develop the much larger Super Heavy/Starship launch vehicle combination.

The FAA has repeatedly approved changes to and expansion of SpaceX’s facility, concluding that they are within line with the company’s original approval and would not significantly change the environmental impacts on the site and the surrounding wetlands.

The ESG Hound series said the FAA’s use of an environmental assessment (EA) is illegal under NEPA because the SpaceX is proposing significant changes to its Boca Chica operations. Instead, the FAA should have ordered a much more rigorous and time consuming environmental impact assessment. The author explained the difference between the assessments in the following passage.

SpaceX owns the FAA. This Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) is all the evidence you need. Construction of a large, 250 MW power plant and a gas plant alone is clearly not an insignificant environmental impact. The PEA process is to expedite minor changes to a full EIA. Let’s think about it this way:

A full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) under NEPA is akin to a building permit. If you had a plot of land you wanted to develop into a warehouse, you’d get architectural plans drawn, a site survey completed and you’d send in the building permit application for the county to review. This can take months, as the county civil engineer has to review as does the fire marshal and the assessor and so on. Once plans are approved you can start building and the building permit remains in force once occupancy has been granted.

The PEA process is like a minor permit. Say I wanted to install a utility boiler or pour a few hundred square feet of concrete or dig out a sump. Those activities might require filing paperwork with the building permits office, they might require an inspection (like the boiler example). But the timing and difficulty of this task is significantly lower, because the actions don’t change the basis upon which the original occupancy permit was issued.

It’s a fascinating series that has already generated a lot of heated discussion on social media (and will undoubtedly generate more debate here). I would encourage people to read the series first and do your own research before sounding off here.