SpaceX Starbase expansion plans will harm endangered species: FWS

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A newly hatched piping plover chick stands next to one of its parents, Monty or Rose, at 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 habitat in order to gain approvals for testing and commercial launches of its Starship Super Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle in Boca Chica, Texas, according to sources. 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 of an endangered bird species, the piping plover, has already been correlated to activity of SpaceX at the South Texas facilities.

The documents also reveal that SpaceX is reducing, for now at least, the amount of power it plans to generate to utility-sized natural gas. Power plant at 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 final approvals and oversight of SpaceX in Texas.

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

In February, CEO Elon Musk said his reusable rocket and satellite internet company could move its Starship Super Heavy launch business to the state of Florida and turn its Boca Chica spaceport into an R&D campus, if regulatory hurdles in Texas were insurmountable.

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

SpaceX is applying to the FAA for a vehicle operator permit and/or license that would allow it to build new facilities and conduct launches of its largest Starship rockets near the towns of Brownsville and South Padre Island, Texas. . The facility sits on a small piece of land surrounded by wildlife refuge areas.

Before granting these licenses and permits, the FAA reviews research from 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 won’t violate the Endangered Species Act if it gives SpaceX the go-ahead for its proposed activity.

Wildlife impacts

The FWS determined – and wrote in a document known as the draft Biological and Conference Advisory (BCO) – that if SpaceX goes ahead with the proposal it sent to the FAA, it would impact certain species protected under the Endangered Species Act, as well as over hundreds of acres of their critical habitat, although the activity would not completely wipe out these species.

Of most concern is the anticipated impact of the undertaking on the mating, migration, health and habitat of populations of piping plovers, red knots, jaguarundi and ocelots. Disturbance and damage can be caused by everything from regular vehicle traffic to noise, heat, explosions and habitat fragmentation caused by construction, rocket testing and launches.

Several species of sea turtles are also of concern, but the FWS relies on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for marine life expertise. One of the turtles is known as the 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 advisory warns that some 903.65 acres of critical piping plover habitat surrounds the facility and that 446.27 acres will be lost due to the direct impact of SpaceX activity under the proposal. submitted to the FAA.

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

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

Overall, the FWS notice may be good news for SpaceX.

The agency requires very little expenditure, retention and other commitments from SpaceX, says Jared Margolis, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, who read a copy of BCO’s draft.

He said: “It appears the Fish and Wildlife Service is bending over backwards to find a way to allow more of what has been a very detrimental use of the Boca Chica site in terms of wildlife impacts.”

Margolis said FWS did not seek well-defined or significant conservation commitments from SpaceX. He pointed out that FWS requires SpaceX to donate $5,000 to an ocelot conservation group per year.

He also said too many of the agency’s requests were just recommendations and not enforceable under the terms and conditions of a possible FAA permit.

“This is a very deep-pocketed company,” Margolis added, “the least they can do is undo 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 BCO project here:

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