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SpaceX #6: The One Fact that Should Kill the Boca Chica Project
The Airheads at SpaceX have a Major problem
CLICK HERE FOR INTRO - Background
CLICK HERE FOR PART 1 - NEPA Primer / FAA has no business permitting oil and gas facilities
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 dreams of drilling for a sh*tload of oil
CLICK HERE FOR PART 5 - A discussion on the hugeness of the project, a parade of tankers and a reality check about the Oil and Gas biz
Today, I’m asking you to share this post! Send it to your friends, enemies, politicians and local mafia dons!
🚨SCROLL TO BOTTOM FOR TL;DR🚨
Chapter 6: The Facility is a “Major Source” of Pollution under the Clean Air Act
Look, this one isn’t going to be sexy like “Elon is Building a Pipeline” or “Elon Wants to Frack Oil”
But it has more concrete legal standing that anything else I’ve found yet. Let’s get to it.
Reminder that NEPA requires disclosure of all environmental impacts. That’s it. It’s a way to release funds and a de facto stamp of approval from the Federal Government.
The scope of a NEPA assessment is somewhat debatable, off-site or indirect impacts are required, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. So while it would be patently ridiculous to ignore the E&P drilling and production operation or the pipelining, if you were a corrupt government official you maybe could say that the Pipeline and E&P are owned by a SpaceX subsidiary and therefore irrelevant or incidental. That’s complete nonsense but there is some wiggle room if you contorted your personal ethics enough
What’s not debatable are on-site impacts directly from the “Action” proposed in the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA)
Let’s talk about my favorite subject of all time: Clean Air Act permitting.
This is not a joke or a gimmick, I love the Clean Air Act. It is both simple and maddeningly complex, remarkably effective and yet at times impossibly difficult for very incremental outcome improvements in air quality. Air permitting and compliance is like 20% process engineering, 10% creative writing and 70% eye-watering legal review but in a cryptic full of acronyms in a language understandable by almost no one. Yes, I am an insane person.
The permitting hierarchy
The Clean Air Act (CAA) is a federal standard, but most of the day to day activity is handled by individual states. In this case, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is the delegated authority by the EPA. TCEQ employees do work under federal directive and with the force of both federal and state law.
EPA steps in for big enforcement cases and is allowed to comment on certain permitting actions, particularly those pertaining to Major Source provisions under PSD, NSR and Title V. No need to write out the acronyms, just follow along.
Attainment Vs. Non Attainment:
All you need to know is that areas with bad pollution (above what’s called the NAAQS level) have special requirements. Arizona, for example, is non-attainment for Particulate Matter (PM) or dust. Most of the other areas shaded are Non-attainment for NOx and Volatile Organic Carbon (VOC), the major cause of smog.
The two “Big Boys” are NSR and PSD permitting and are called Major Sources under the Clean Air Act. NSR is only for pollutants who are in non-attainment. So if I wanted to permit a VOC activity in, say, Houston, I’d kick in NSR permitting at 40 tons per year VOC. PM doesn’t matter until 100 or 250 tons, even in polluted Harris county, because the area is a-ok for background PM emissions.
NSR is designed to prevent the ambient air quality (NAAQS) from getting worse, since the area is already above an action level.
PSD applies for emissions from sources above 250 or 100 (hint: this is important) tons in attainment areas. It is designed to have special permitting, air dispersion modeling and other requirements to prevent a county from going Attainment to Non-attainment. CAA is designed specifically to stop Attainment areas from backsliding.
So, let’s look at Cameron county, home of Boca Chica. It’s in attainment, so NSR permitting cannot apply, ever. Next we look at PSD permitting, which usually has a 250 ton annual threshold.
This is where the 3 SpaceX employees who wrote the PEA f*cked up. Let me say this:
None of the SpaceX employees have any actual permitting experience. This isn’t a knock on them but they were and are ill suited to the task
Neither the TCEQ or the EPA were consulted as part of this PEA process. Had they been contacted, this egregious and frankly hilarious screw up would’ve probably been avoided.
So it appears the SpaceX employees half assedly followed the FAA Desk Reference manual and wrote some wildly incorrect nonsense about “insignificance tests” and “netting” since they just knew they’d be under the 250 ton significance level for PSD permitting.
Turns out, when you’re looking at PSD you have to do something. It’s actually the literal FIRST STEP in most federal permitting guides. Like this handy reference chart from South Carolina:
Step one (after the “Begin the process” step) is to check to see if you have one of 28 named sources under the PSD Rule.
Whoops. Turns out we have one of the VERY FIRST sources types EPA was concerned about back in 1977.
A 250 Megawatt co-gen power plant both:
Makes electricity from steam
Burns more than 250 MMBtu/hr (it actually consumes 1200!)
So, since we have one of the named sources under the CAA, the significance level is 100 tons. Not only that, but for these sources you also have to add up fugitive emissions sitewide, including emissions from cranes and bulldozers and forklifts and boats docked at shore.
You also have to include Maintenance, Startup and Shutdown (MSS) emissions, which for turbines includes periods of super high emissions during startup in shutdown (I covered this in part 5).
SpaceX did none of the above. They characterized on site activities as minimal without any math or assumptions. They also clearly did not account for fugitive dust.
If we compare emissions from a recently approved PSD permit for a nearly identically set up NRG plant in Chambers county a picture emerges.
Not only did SpaceX’s crack team of permitting neophytes grossly underestimate NOx emissions, they missed on CO emissions, and completely ignored particulates and SO2 emissions. They also apparently forgot to look up that ammonia is required for NOx control in Texas under 30 TAC 117.
So, being the nice guy I am, I fixed their assumptions, including the hilarious fact that they seem to think that process flares at gas plants are never used and this is what I came up with:
Now, these numbers can come down, but this clearly triggers a PSD Major Source review and by Definition, the PSD process is to “Prevent Significant Deterioration” to NAAQS.
Keep in mind, I suspect that there are a good half dozen emissions sources they forgot to mention in the first place, since none of the Writers have ever permitted anything much less a gas plant and “Named Source” at TCEQ.
The FAA’s own guidance indicates that a significance test for NEPA/PEA standards is:
The action would cause pollutant concentrations to exceed one or more of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), as established by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act, for any of the time periods analyzed, or to increase the frequency or severity of any such existing violations
The PSD process is to make exactly that calculation. The law says we must FIRST do off-site impact modeling before we can claim a NAAQS can’t be exceeded. It’s in the law. Three conflicted SpaceX employees who wouldn’t know what AP-42 is if it punched them in the face do not get to set precedence for PSD permitting significance. That’s for TCEQ and EPA to decide.
This is the comment going into the FAA by me:
The Drafting Process for Air Pollution impact was completed by SpaceX employees with inadequate stationary source air permitting experience and neither TCEQ nor EPA was contacted during the process. I’ve been in the air compliance and permitting field for a long time; the logic I outlined in items 1 through 3 above was not a mysterious or esoteric exercise. PSD significance screening is the first step when evaluating a new air permitting project and is done dozens of times every single day by air permit engineers across the country. I reviewed the CVs of the three SpaceX employees responsible for this PEA and none of them appear to have any air permitting experience. In addition, per page 143 of the PEA, neither the TCEQ nor the EPA were consulted for the creation of this draft, which would go a long way towards describing the reason for this basic oversite in air impact significance evaluation. This discrepancy, of course, begs the question: what other environmental impacts exist that SpaceX and the FAA failed to identify?
Some other fun tidbits and quotes from the very bad PEA:
“Pollutant concentrations would have ample distance to disperse and concentrations at the nearest populated areas (e.g., Brownsville, South Padre Island) would be low”
Source: Dude trust me
Although estimated CO emissions exceed the General Conformity Rule threshold of 100 tons per year, exceeding this threshold does not predict there will be an exceedance of the NAAQS, but indicates that further assessment is warranted.
Yeah that assessment is called PSD.
The proposed action emission levels for CO are slightly above the General Conformity Rule de minimis threshold; however, the net emissions (i.e., the proposed action emission levels minus the no action emission levels) are estimated to be lower than the de minimis threshold, as the Boca Chica Launch Site is an active launch site
This one makes me laugh because, the General Conformity rues is *explicity* exempted as a screening tool for PSD/NSR subject permitting
Also netting out emissions for existing minor sources is explicitly prohibited by law and TCEQ guidance. If this minor source netting was allowed, you could just permit a new 90 ton source every year as one weird trick to get around PSD/NSR.
SpaceX used inexperienced engineers to do the Air Impact section and they skipped literally step 1 of PSD significance screening (is it one of the 28 named sources?) (hint: yes it is)
SpaceX did not consult TCEQ or EPA at all
They decided they didn’t feel like adding up all the emissions even though it’s explicitly required per PSD, NEPA and FAA guidance
They missed a bunch of other required emissions calculations and mis-cited a bunch of rules
This facility is a PSD Major Source as defined in 40 CFR § 166.20, even using SpaceX’s own woefully inadequate emissions calculations.
PSD Named sources are the single highest level of significance afforded in the entire Clean Air Act. For SpaceX and FAA to claim them as de minimus and therefore insignificant under NEPA is laughable.
Prediction: this is not the last time you’ll hear about this
Until Next Time, ESGH