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SpaceX #14 - The Hidden Casualties of the Quest for Mars
The "Move Fast and Break Things" mantra sucks, actually
Hey all, back to back posts!
Links to previous entries at Bottom
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CHAPTER 14: The Small Things Still Matter
I’ve been truly fascinated and humbled in the past week or so, as my “shining light on the cockroaches” series on SpaceX and FAA’s unquestionably illegal and absurd PEA for STARBASE started getting traction; thanks, of course, in no small part to Mark Harris at TechCrunch doing some great reporting.
I want to take a second to discuss the little things and why they matter.
The Big Stuff
There are two fundamental truths, in my view, about the “energy” industry. The first being that fossil fuels are the foundation for modern society as we know it. The thermodynamic properties and fungibility of the fuels themselves are what allows us to have excess energy to create other stuff, to have food to eat, and to power higher learning and the arts. If we turned off the fossil fuel spigot overnight, the human casualties would rack up immediately and a significant portion of the global population would be dead within months. Those who do survive would spend nearly every hour of their lives trying to survive. No more intellectual or artistic growth, we’d revert to a more primal version of ourselves immediately.
The second truth is that our current per-capita consumption rate of fossil fuels is untenable. Forget worst case climate change scenarios; even a more nuanced look at land impacts, climate and resource consumption shows that at some point, we as a species must find a way to significantly decrease our foundational reliance on fossil fuels.
Now, the second item is where things get tricky. One of the side effects of modern western capitalism is that all owners of capital must grow or die. If the global energy industry is run almost entirely at the whims of capital (hint: it is!), this need for perpetual economic growth makes the necessity to ween ourselves off of (or at the very least significantly decrease the per-capita use of) fossil fuels impossible. Those two fundamental forces are diametrically opposed. This dynamic is why I started this Publication in the first place. Since big, bold regulatory or policy changes seem nearly impossible, can we instead bully or coerce the forces of capital flows, through things like ESG investing, to make smart long term policy decisions? (Initial results are in and things ain’t looking so great)
So, as an example, I can be empathetic towards those who point at environmental activists who want to stop every single project or rig or pipeline as anti-humanist. We can’t turn the spigot off without mass death, this is true. We need to make smart, macro, policy decisions.
On the flip side, Texas is already a huge sprawling web of oil and gas activity. But the southern coast of the state, from Corpus down to Mexico is largely untouched by oil and gas. Some of that is a function of the oil and gas formations themselves (e.g. where SpaceX wants to drill) being, um, not great on an economic basis. Regardless, this portion of the gulf coast is largely uninhabited by man and is refreshingly low on industrial development. It’s a beautiful and ecologically important area.
So, I’d argue that saying “natural gas is a bridge fuel into the future” is not fundamentally incompatible with also arguing “hey, maybe let’s not make a bunch of LNG terminals or an entire Rocket Launch Megacomplex supported by greenfield gas extraction and refining on this wildlife sanctuary!”
This is all big picture stuff, topics that I want to dive into in the months to come (once I finally get off the SpaceX topic). But let’s talk the small things.
The Little Things
I want to tell you a story. I spent years as middle management at a refinery. We had just completed a 2 week maintenance turnaround on one of the crude distillation units. During the Pre Startup Safety Review (PSSR) process, someone noticed that at the top of one of the stacks, 100 feet off the ground, a family of hawks had nested and possibly laid eggs in a crevice in the column while everything was shut down. No one could get near the nest without agitating the birds into protective attack mode.
There was some debate about this. One person at the facility speculated that the hawks would get annoyed at the vibration and heat once the 100,000 barrel per day unit was fired back up and just fly away. A plant engineer looked at the numbers and said he thought the birds would probably be fine as is based on a quick calculation of refracted heat from the steel. Regardless, every day this unit was not operating was millions of dollars of lost revenue.
One thing people don’t understand is the insane level of caution midstream and downstream (pipeline to refining) have about everything. This is less true of E&P companies, but refineries and gas plants and pipelines have had decades of experience navigating fallout from lawsuits, regulations and civil and criminal penalties. As a result, all of the oil majors have some sort of STOP WORK authority. This is a philosophy where any employee can, without fear of reprimand or punishment, stop a task if they feel there is something unsafe or damaging occurring. This idea isn’t perfect in practice (of course), but on that day myself and one other employee said “no.” As a compliance manager I really felt I had no choice. We needed to get a wildlife biologist out there to assess before we do anything. It took 3 days to get the hawks (and eggs, as it turned out) out of that unit. It cost the company nearly 4 million dollars, and I never heard a word, once, criticizing our choice. This isn’t intended to be self congratulatory or a broad defense of the oil industry, just a friendly reminder that nuance still exists and the millions of people employed by these companies aren’t just Captain Planet villains.
I was struck by this memory yesterday when the ESG Hound mailbox received this message:
I am a retired NIH veterinarian and microbiologist. I pass the time patching up the native wildlife of South Texas and gardening. I grew up only a few miles from Boca Chica beach. So I knew that Mr. Musk's arrival would end the life I was accustomed to. But I accept that he is here to stay and that we need to work amicably with each other as best we can. When SN11 blew up, the next day I ended up with a shell shocked masked booby, a wilson's plover and a mudhen. A few weeks later, when I drove out to their facility to drop off a calling card at Security so they would know where they could deliver the casualties, I was thrown off the premises. I do not know the status of your relations with SpaceX. But if it's amicable, please forward them a copy of my card. My wife, Gloria, and I do not charge for our services. We just like animals.
Ron Hines DVM PhD
I don’t even know what to do with this kind of thing. I was not prepared for it. Somehow I became the megaphone (small as it is) to broadcast to the world how deeply messed up this whole situation is.
This kind and wonderful human isn’t telling SpaceX to stop incinerating birds. He’s surely much wiser than me, perhaps, and can see the bureaucratic inevitability at play here. He merely wanted to tell SpaceX management that if, and when, they find injured wildlife that he will take care of the innocent creatures free of charge. He had nowhere else to go to pass along a business card to the Technoking and was tossed out like a peasant for daring to seek an audience.
Let’s Move Slow For Once
Shifting back to the oil majors (Marathon, Chevron, Exxon, Kinder Morgan, Marathon, etc). These guys aren’t saints. Not by a long shot. But they have decades of institutional knowledge and a certain level of caution and risk aversion, brought about by numerous PR disasters and resulting regulatory controls.
That's what's most aggravating of all of it. The Silicon Valley “move fast and break things” ethos is embedded with a sociopathic branch of libertarian philosophy that is deeply cynical and cruel. One that expects everyone to look to fantastical promises of a distant future, without stopping to observe and mitigate the tangible harm it creates here and now.
No one, perhaps, embodies this ethos more than Elon Musk. A man who can do no wrong whatsoever by his adoring cult. Someone who justifies every life and system he steamrolls along the way as an inevitable and noble casualty in service of the promise for a better future. Elon Musk has told us, repeatedly and explicitly, that he thinks regulation does not apply to him. His actions back this up as well.
Forget energy development as a whole for a second. An Elon Musk company should not be allowed to control an oil and gas operation of any size. And certainly not a vertically integrated one in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. The only thing he should be managing is his Popular Science collection, out of the public eye forever. Maybe then he’d have time to receive business cards from people who care for others with no expectation of adoration or wealth in return.
Here’s this card for when that day hopefully comes. Or maybe someone could pass along to SpaceX Boca Chica operations in the interim.
Until next time….
PART 1 - NEPA Primer / FAA has no business permitting oil and gas facilities
PART 2 - Elon Musk’s Natural Gas Treatment Plant
PART 3 - SpaceX is building a pipeline and doesn’t feel the need to mention it
PART 4 - SpaceX dreams of drilling for a sh*tload of oil
PART 5 - A discussion on the hugeness of the project, a parade of tankers and a reality check about the Oil and Gas biz
PART 6 - The Facility would be a Major Source of Pollution under the PSD Rules in the Clean Air Act, which by statutory definition would exclude it from fast track approval under NEPA
PART 7 - The GHG and CO2 emissions are plainly nonsense
PART 8 - ESG Hound drops the gauntlet and explains why this is a massive fraud happening in plain sight.
PART 9 - The End of NEPA as we know it
PART 10 - ELON MUSK REALITY DISTORTION FIELD
PART 11 - Pipeline Plans Confirmed!
PART 12 - It turns out drilling for oil and gas has some negative environmental impacts
PART 13 - I found the Modular Gas Plant; the clue that got me there will leave you stiff with shock