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SpaceX, a veritable leader in the emerging space-based economic paradigm, is pursuing an ecologically insensitive strategy to expand the operations at its Boca Chica facility. The magnitude of this expansion is so extensive that it virtually renders the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the facility nearly obsolete.
As a refresher, SpaceX had announced toward the start of the year that it would drill its own natural gas near its Southern Texas facility in order to generate the required energy to send missions to the moon and beyond. The planned expansion includes at least 5 nearby gas wells that would supply the fuel to two gas-fired power stations. Additionally, the company plans to turn purified gas from these wells into liquid methane via refrigeration. This methane would then be combined with liquid oxygen and other chemicals to produce rocket fuel.
How Is SpaceX’s Expansion of the Boca Chica Facility Problematic?
Of course, this vision will entail substantial infrastructure, including a 250-megawatt gas-fired power plant, a natural gas treatment facility, a methane liquefier, a cooling tower, a desalination plant, and a dedicated pipeline to supply the gas to the power plant. It should be noted that SpaceX has not mentioned a pipeline in its plans so far. However, it would be virtually impossible to operate a power station of this size without a dedicated pipeline. This is doubly important as the Boca Chica facility is located in a broadly unproductive part of Texas, with the nearest productive gas field located at least 70 miles away.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. SpaceX’s 2014 EIS for the Boca Chica facility did not consider a full-blown gas extraction and processing operation at the site. Given the magnitude of incremental changes involved, a new EIS should have been conducted. Instead, the FAA has adopted the Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) route to authorize this expansion. This is problematic as the PEAs are not very exhaustive and thorough. Also, while an EIS can take up to 5 years to materialize, a PEA can be conducted fairly quickly.
The latest Draft PEA for SpaceX’s Starship base can be accessed here. This draft is now open for public comments. We would also urge our readers to go over this excellent thread compiled by ESG Hound on this subject.
In a worrying development, the PEA barely mentions SpaceX’s gas-fired power plant. Moreover, there is not a single mention of a pipeline that would be required to transport gas in such hefty volumes to the power station. Pat Parenteau, a law professor and senior counsel in the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School, who was quoted by TechCrunch on this subject, believes that a lack of mention of this pipeline potentially contravenes the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
A thread about CO2 emissions from cogen steam Natural Gas fired turbines, as it relates to @SpaceX Boca Chica
(I am doing your work for you, journalists)
SpaceX claimed that they would emit 9,858 Tons of CO2/year from a 250 MW power plant
— ESG Hound (@ESGhound) September 29, 2021
SpaceX estimates that it would produce 47,522 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year once the entire Starship base kicks into high gear. The power plant alone will contribute 9,858 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year. However, as per the tabulation by ESG Hound, the emissions from this power plant are likely to exceed 1 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year. If this is indeed true, it corresponds to an underreporting by a whopping 100 times!
Finally, readers should note that the Boca Chica facility is home to a rich ecology and its expansion might prove devastating for a number of biomes. According to EJ Williams, vice president at the American Bird Conservancy, there were at least three explosions at the site last year which directly impacted the habitat of some endangered species:
“These explosions directly impacted designated critical habitat used by federally listed and other declining species.”
Wrapping It All Up
No one doubts the utility of SpaceX’s fossil fuel-related plans. After all, the upgrade would provide a significant contribution to the efficiency of the company’s space-related operations. However, there is mounting concern vis-à-vis the potential subterfuge that SpaceX is employing to obtain a fast-track approval for this expansion, for instance, by underreporting emissions or completely excluding the necessity of a pipeline.
Readers would remember that Elon Musk had spurred a widespread correction in the entire crypto sphere earlier this year after he recanted Tesla’s acceptance of Bitcoin while citing the cryptocurrency’s soaring energy use and the attendant carbon footprint. Against this backdrop, SpaceX’s potentially underhand tactics to expedite the approval of its gas-related infrastructure reeks of hypocrisy at best and a possible criminal conduct at worst.