Are SpaceX's current (2020/2021) flight tests of Starship prototypes outside the scope of the FAA's 2014 Environmental Impact Statement?
The FAA's 2014 Environmental Impact Statement analyzed the potential environmental impacts of launches of Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and other reusable suborbital launch vehicles from the Boca Chica Launch Site. Since publishing the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision, the FAA re-evaluated the Environmental Impact Statement to determine if proposed changes to SpaceX's original proposal required new environmental documentation per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These re-evaluations are referred to as Written Re-evaluations, and are posted on the FAA's website. Each Written Re-evaluation concluded that SpaceX's changes to its proposal fell within the scope of impacts analyzed in the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement and did not require preparation of a new environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Therefore, the current flight tests of Starship prototypes-a reusable suborbital launch vehicle-are within the scope of the Written Re-evaluations performed on the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement.
Level of environmental review
Why is an Environmental Assessment being prepared and not an Environmental Impact Statement for SpaceX's proposed Starship/Super Heavy launch operations?
The FAA requires the applicant to provide information, including a description of the proposed activity to be licensed or permitted and the environmental impacts the activity may cause, during pre-application consultation for a license or permit. The applicant must provide the FAA enough information for the FAA to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other applicable environmental laws, regulations, and Executive Orders (14 CFR § 450.47).
Information may be provided in the form of a draft environmental assessment (EA), which SpaceX is preparing under the supervision of the FAA. The FAA will conduct an independent review of the draft environmental assessment to determine whether SpaceX's proposal would result in significant environmental impacts. Cooperating agencies will also participate in the development of the draft environmental assessment. Upon review of a complete draft environmental assessment, the FAA could make one of the following determinations:
- Preparation of an environmental impact statement is necessary because the proposed action's environmental impacts would be significant.
- Preparation of an environmental assessment is appropriate. A draft environmental assessment would be published for public review and comment. Public comments would be considered prior to the publication of a final environmental assessment and a Finding of No Significant Impact would be issued.
- Preparation of an environmental assessment is appropriate. A draft environmental assessment would be published for public review and comment. Public comments would be considered prior to the publication of a "Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact". A Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact provides for mitigation measures to address the proposed action's environmental impacts.
Will there be opportunity for the public to comment on the Environmental Assessment?
If the FAA determines an environmental assessment is the appropriate level of environmental review after reviewing SpaceX's draft environmental assessment, the FAA would publish the draft environmental assessment for public review and comment. The FAA would announce the availability of the draft environmental assessment by email, social media, and publication in the Federal Register. SpaceX would post notices in local newspapers.
Could the FAA still consider requiring the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement prior to approving this license?
If the FAA determines the potential environmental impacts of the proposed action would be significant based upon the draft environmental assessment, and those impacts cannot be properly mitigated to less than significant levels, the FAA would publish a Notice of Intent to prepare an environmental impact statement and conduct additional public scoping. The FAA may make this determination regarding the course of action at any time, including before the draft environmental assessment is published or after the draft environmental assessment has been shared for public review and comment.
How does the FAA define an operational closure for land for SpaceX operations at Boca Chica?
For the purposes of environmental review, the FAA defines a closure of land for operations at Boca Chica as follows:
A closure begins when local law enforcement, under the direction of an order from the Cameron County Commissioners Court, shuts down State Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach for a tank test, wet dress rehearsal, static fire engine test, or launch. A closure ends when the operation is completed and local law enforcement opens State Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach.
How was the current operational closure area for SpaceX operations at Boca Chica determined?
As defined by the FAA in 14 CFR § 401.7, flight hazard area means any region of land, sea, or air that must be surveyed, publicized, controlled, or evacuated to ensure compliance with the safety criteria in 14 CFR § 450.101. The flight hazard area is determined during the application process and is based on the scope of the proposed launch operations. Thus, SpaceX's "closure area" discussed in the NEPA document must at least contain the flight hazard area.
In developing the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement for the Boca Chica Launch Site, FAA coordinated with state and federal agencies that own and/or manage land adjacent to and surrounding the launch site, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Texas General Land Office. The agencies expressed concern regarding potential damage to property and sensitive environmental resources from people trying to walk through public lands to view SpaceX's launch operations. Therefore, SpaceX, in coordination with state and federal agencies, established a "soft" checkpoint to control public access beyond the flight hazard area to protect sensitive environmental public lands. This coordination resulted in the closure area defined in the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement. The closure area remains appropriate for all activities within the scope of the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement.
Does the FAA control how closures are issued?
No. The FAA does not have a direct role in approving land closures, including State Highway 4 and the beach. However, the FAA incorporates the number of closure hours into its assessment of environmental impacts. SpaceX coordinates with the Cameron County Commissioners Court and the Texas General Land Office to determine when closures may occur and how closure hours are calculated. SpaceX is not granted a closure until it receives approval from the Cameron County Commissioners Court.
Environmental impact analysis
What types of environmental impacts does the FAA consider?
The FAA's National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementing procedures-FAA Order 1050.1F, Environmental Impacts: Policies and Procedures-require the FAA to consider 14 resource areas (referred to as environmental impact categories by the FAA) in its NEPA documents:
- Air quality
- Biological resources (including fish, wildlife, and plants)
- Coastal resources
- Department of Transportation Act Section 4(f)
- Hazardous Materials, Solid Waste, and Pollution Prevention
- Historical, architectural, archeological, and cultural resources
- Land use
- Natural resources and energy supply
- Noise and noise-compatible land use
- Socioeconomics, environmental justice, and children's environmental health and safety risks
- Visual effects (including light emissions)
- Water resources (including wetlands, floodplains, surface waters, groundwater, and wild and scenic rivers)
Why isn't the FAA considering other action alternatives in the environmental assessment?
The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) defines "reasonable alternatives" as those "that are technically and economically feasible, meet the purpose and need for the proposed action, and, where applicable, meet the goals of the applicant" 40 CFR § 1508.1(z).
SpaceX's goal for the Starship and Super Heavy program is to test prototypes and eventually launch full-scale Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicles to orbit and beyond. SpaceX has already invested in the Boca Chica Launch Site and is currently conducting test flights of Starship prototypes at this site. All of SpaceX's application material, including public safety analyses, are based on conducting launch operations at the Boca Chica Launch Site.
Where can I obtain more information about the project?
Please visit the FAA's project website. You may use links on the website to request to be added to the project email distribution list.
Where can I get a copy of FAA Order 1050.1F and the 1050.1F Desk Reference?
You may view and download electronic copies of each document from the FAA's Environmental Policy and Guidance website.
Where can I get a copy of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) NEPA Regulations?You may view and download electronic copies of the regulations from CEQ's website.