SpaceX Starbase expansion plans will hurt endangered species: FWS

SpaceX Starbase expansion plans will hurt endangered species: FWS

A newly hatched plover chick stands next to one of her parents, Monte Oroz, in Montrose Beach on July 10, 2021.

Joon Ji Kim | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

SpaceX must take steps to monitor and mitigate the impact on endangered species and their habitats in order to obtain approvals for the test and commercial launch of its spacecraft. The spaceship’s ultra-high payload launch vehicle is located in Boca Chica, Texas, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service documents 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 black-throated plover, is indeed linked to SpaceX’s activity at the facility in south Texas.

The documents also show that SpaceX is working, at least for the time being, to reduce the amount of power it plans to generate from associated natural gas. The power plant at the 47.4-hectare launch site.

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

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 subject to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval. This is the fate of SpaceX’s commercial commitments in Texas.

In February, CEO Elon Musk said his reusable rocket and satellite company could move 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. .

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SpaceX sent the last known bid for the Boca Chica facility to the Federal Aviation Administration in September 2021. At the time, the company said it was using a new launch pad, landing pad, power plant, natural gas processing facilities and water infrastructure, including submersion systems and storage ponds, To cool the launch pad there.

SpaceX is applying to the Federal Aviation Administration for a permit and/or license to operate vehicles that will allow it to build new facilities and carry out larger rocket launches near Brownsville and South Padre Island, Texas. The facility is located on a small plot of land surrounded by nature reserves.

Before granting these licenses and permits, the FAA considers investigations 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 does not violate the Endangered Species Act if SpaceX gives the green light for the proposed activity.

FWS identified – and wrote in a document known as a draft Biological Conference (BCO) opinion – that if SpaceX approved the proposal I 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 is not completely eradicating those species .

Even more important is the projected impact of the company on the mating, migration, health, and habitat populations of the great gray plover, grouse, jaguarundi, and ocelot. Disturbance and damage can be caused by everything from normal vehicle movement to noise, heat, explosions and habitat fragmentation from construction work, missile tests and launches.

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

The draft advisory 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 operations under the proposal submitted to the FAA.

Among its recommendations and requirements are that SpaceX closely monitor affected animal populations, restrict construction and launch activities to specific seasons or times of day and night, and use shuttles to reduce vehicular traffic for workers at the site.

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

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

Jared Margulis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who read a copy of the BCO concept, said the agency requires very little spending, conservation and other commitments from SpaceX.

“It appears that the Fish and Wildlife Service is doing its best to find a way to enable more of what has been a very harmful use of Boca Chica in terms of impacts on wildlife,” he said.

Margolis said FWS did not ask for well-defined commitments or missions from SpaceX when it came to conservation. He noted that FWS is asking SpaceX to donate $5,000 annually to the Ocelot Protection Group.

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He also said that many of the agency’s requests were mere recommendations and were not enforceable under the terms of the FAA’s final approval.

“This is a company with very deep pockets, and the least they can do is address that damage in a meaningful way,” Margulis added.

CNBC has contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service news agency, but officials were not immediately available for comment on Margulies’ claim.

Read the full BCO concept here:

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