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 documents from the US Fish and Wildlife Service obtained by CNBC.
The documents, released by the federal agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, show that recent declines in an endangered bird species, the piping plover, have already been correlated with SpaceX activity at the South Texas facility.
The documents also reveal that SpaceX is, for now at least, reducing the amount of energy it plans to generate at a utility-sized natural gas power plant on 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 liable for final approvals and oversight of SpaceX in Texas.
The company’s ability to expand its business, and conduct launches beyond its existing Falcon rockets, hinges on this FAA approval. So does the fate of SpaceX’s business commitments in Texas.
In February, CEO Elon Musk said that his reusable rocket and satellite internet company could shift its Starship Super Heavy launch activity to the state of Florida, and turn its Boca Chica spaceport into more of an R&D campus, if regulatory hurdles in Texas proved insurmountable.
SpaceX sent its most recent known proposal for the Boca Chica facility to the FAA in September 2021. At that time, the company had said it wanted to build a new launch pad, new landing pad, power plant, natural gas processing facilities, and water infrastructure, including deluge systems and retention ponds used for cooling the launch pad there.
SpaceX is seeking from the FAA a permit and/or vehicle operator license that would allow it to build out new facilities and conduct launches of its larger Starship rockets near the cities of Brownsville and South Padre Island, Texas. The facility is on a small piece of land surrounded by wildlife refuge areas.
Before granting these licenses and permits, the FAA considers research from a number of other federal and state agencies and local environmental specialists.
Part of the FAA’s process includes a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that the agency won’t violate the Endangered Species Act if it gives SpaceX a go-ahead for its proposed activity.
The FWS has determined — and written in a document known as a draft biological and conference opinion (BCO) — that if SpaceX moves ahead with the proposal it sent to the FAA, it would impact some species protected under the Endangered Species Act, as well as hundreds of acres of their critical habitat, although the activity would not completely wipe out those species.
Of greatest concern is the company’s anticipated impact to the mating, migration, health and habitat of the piping plover, red knot, jaguarundi and ocelot populations. Disruptions and harm can be caused by everything from regular vehicle traffic, to the noise, heat, explosions and fragmentation of habitat caused by construction, rocket testing and launches.
Several species of sea turtles are also of concern, but FWS deferred to 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 critically endangered sea turtle in the world.
The draft opinion cautions that some 903.65 acres of piping plover critical habitat surrounds the facility and 446.27 acres of that will be lost from the direct impact of SpaceX activity under the proposal submitted to the FAA.
Among its recommendations and requirements, the FWS wants SpaceX to monitor affected animal populations carefully, limit construction and launch activity to specific seasons or times of day and night, and use shuttles to reduce vehicle traffic of workers on location.
The agency is also encouraging further research to understand potential effects on the monarch butterfly, which is under consideration to be listed as a threatened or endangered species in the US now.
Overall, the FWS opinion may be good news for SpaceX.
The agency requires very little in the way of spending, conservation and other commitments by SpaceX, says Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who read a copy of the draft BCO.
He said, “It seems the Fish and Wildlife Service is bending over backwards to figure out a way to permit more of what has been a very detrimental use of the Boca Chica site as far as impacts to wildlife go.”
Margolis said FWS did not ask for well-defined or large commitments by SpaceX where conservation is concerned. He pointed to FWS requiring SpaceX to donate a meager $5,000 to an ocelot conservation group per year.
He also said that too many of the agency’s requests were merely recommendations, and not enforceable under the terms and conditions of an eventual FAA permit.
“This is a company with very deep pockets,” Margolis added, “the least they could do is address these harms in a meaningful way.”
CNBC contacted the press office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service but officials were not immediately available to comment on Margolis’ assertions.
Read the full draft BCO here: