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SpaceX #1: A Tale of Two Assessments
It was the best of times, it was... well, you know
CLICK HERE FOR INTRO - Background
CLICK HERE FOR PART 2 - Elon Musk’s Natural Gas Treatment Plant
CLICK HERE FOR PART 3 - SpaceX is building a pipeline and doesn’t feel the need to mention it
CLICK HERE FOR PART 4 - SpaceX: Drill baby, Drill
Hey y’all It’s Elon Musk Month here at ESG Hound. That’s right
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Ok, so last week I wrote a little about the SpaceX/FAA draft Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for SpaceX’s desired expansion into a remote, ecologically sensitive area.
The problems with this PEA are numerous and there’s a new cockroach every time I dig even a little. It’s a transparent misuse of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). There are going to be several of these pieces. They’re technical and boring at parts. I’ll try to summarize the best I can as I proceed, but please be aware that this is all going to be submitted through the legally mandated public comment process as well, so the detail is required to elicit appropriate response from the FAA.
I have no financial motive to see SpaceX’s project fail. I do not trade or sell short any equities, bonds, or financial instruments whatsoever. My investment portfolio is 100% in static boring mutual funds; I guess I should therefore disclose that given equity indexing I am a technically a fractional Tesla shareholder.
I was not paid or commissioned to do this work. I have however collected small, anonymous, donations to fund my research, given some expected expenses predicted. This series, and more generally, this newsletter is a hobby of mine and a way to share my interests and insights with the world, good and bad
I love rockets and space. I think landing rockets is cool. I also think that SpaceX’s business practices aside, it’s great that smart ambitious American engineers and scientists are getting paid to learn rocketry, physics, engineering. Great people work at SpaceX and I know many people who left the Company with a wonderful, educational experience
I think that the Boca Chica expansion project proposed by SpaceX and the FAA is ill conceived, rushed and catastrophic for both the local ecosystem and the credibility of a well functioning regulatory state. That it erodes trust in our society and is a case study in regulatory capture and crony capitalism. I believe that this project should be halted until a compliant and complete Environmental Assessment is complete.
My views, published here, are as accurate as possible given the data available. My writing will be submitted to the FAA as part of the public comment process. My asking for clarifications or questioning methodologies, or getting something incorrect as a result of missing information or context is not “FUD.” It is part of a well functioning and important NEPA process. You can question my motives all you want, and you should, frankly. But this is part of a legal process, and therefore personal attacks against me would constitute a violent and inappropriate means to suppress a process that REQUIRES BY LAW input from the public.
A Mini NEPA Primer
EPA/DOE has a really helpful guide, you should read it! But here are my highlights
NEPA pre-dates most of the main environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972) and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976). It is a mechanism for handing out Federal Government resources such as land use, grant money, access to shared resources, mineral rights, etc.
NEPA requires that the government agency prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that identifies all significant environmental risks associated with a project. If I want to build an interstate, for example, I have to examine the impact on community, land use, water sheds, air pollution, etc. This impact is not just from construction. In the highway example, I’d have to look at the air emissions from construction as well as annual vehicle emissions once it’s open.
NEPA doesn’t require the agency to mitigate all environmental risks, they simply must be disclosed. DOT/PHMSA could determine that a pipeline kills an entire population of endangered species, but could still proceed as long as that risk is disclosed. NEPA disagreements almost always occur through interested parties (Such as Greenpeace, Sierra Club, etc) suing the Federal Agency.
Regarding SpaceX specifically, they completed an EIA for initial operations in Boca Chica back in 2014. Full EIAs take years to complete, so if the FAA/SpaceX wanted to add a few launches per year, for example, they could simply update the existing authorization using a PEA. All they have to demonstrate that the proposed change meets the scope and impact of the initial EIA; all environmental impact changes must be minimal.
The problem here is that, a prima facie, this project is NOT a minimal change. Elon Musk is calling it STARBASE for crying out loud. The rockets they’re launching are like 10 times bigger than initially authorized. They’re building a very large power plant, and they’re doing physical separation of natural gas! It’s patently absurd to even non environmental law nerds like me.
The scope of the assessment must include, by law, all associated operations. The FAA cannot just examine impacts from the rocket launches in a vacuum. Since the natural gas and power infrastructure included for this project are critical to the launches by SpaceX’s own admission, they are very much in scope to the proposed action. Musk and the media have focused on the rockets, while the massive industrial operation supporting the launches themselves have gone unnoticed. I suspect this is by design, but I’m here to pull the curtain back.
While NEPA doesn’t require specific mitigation, it does mandate full disclosure and it requires response to public comment. This is where I come in. I live in Texas, I’m an environmental compliance professional. This project is in my back yard, and frankly it’s an affront to my profession. In my view, if approved and unchallenged, it would invalidate NEPA as a process.
The Annova LNG Assessment
In 2014, Annova LNG began preliminary discussions with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to construct a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) export terminal less than 10 miles from SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility. They began the pre-filing process in 2015, held initial meetings with the public and then officially submitted paperwork to FERC in 2016. The Environmental Impact Assessment, linked here, was released in April of 2019. The project was strongly opposed by the Sierra Club and other Environmental groups, and as a result of pushback and market conditions, the project was cancelled in 2021 by the Company.
What’s critical here is to take a look at the facilities themselves, the agency approving the action, and the respective Environmental Reviews.
The Annova project was to take pipeline (98% methane) natural gas, minimally treat it, cryogenically convert it into a liquid and then transload it into a barge for export.
By way of comparison, the SpaceX project involves taking (presumably) Field Natural Gas (typically 70-80% methane), running it through a separation plant (which would generate waste ethane and hydrocarbon liquids), cryogenically converting it into a liquid, and then loading it onto a rocket where it is combusted on site.
Oh and there’s a 250 Megawatt power plant.
The Annova plant would likely take in significantly more natural gas by volume, since it was proposed as a dedicated export hub. However, SpaceX provided exactly zero color as to any projected fossil fuel usages.
The SpaceX facility is notably more complex and contains more hazardous and unpredictable processes.
The proposed Air Emissions give a rough surrogate as to the scope difference as its mostly a surrogate for Natural Gas combustion. They are really pretty close!
I should note that SpaceX’s Potential To Emit (PTE) emissions calculations are absolute garbage (which I will cover in a later post) and are likely wildly underestimated. I posted an example to Twitter here:
The difference here is in the EIA. FERC’s NEPA process is in depth and difficult to pass, as they’ve had decades of experience making sure everything is right. The report is 700 pages! It took 4 years to complete! Outside consultant were brought in!
SpaceX’s PEA, by way of comparison, assumes that the environmental impacts will be insignificantly different from 2014. It’s 154 pages, and 50% of the text is about the rocket launches! It was slapped together by 3 SpaceX employees who have minimal NEPA experience and appear to have no EPA permitting experience.
I’ll dig in more later, but feel free to browse the Annova EIS and examine what NEPA requires. These requirements are the same for any Agency, so the FAA’s lack of domain experience here in handling fossil fuel processing facilities is not only NOT an excuse, but is a great example of the absolute administrative failure of the agency in its unending deference to Elon Musk.
Until Next Time, ESGH.