From: FAA Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial
Posted: Monday, June 13, 2022
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is evaluating Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) proposal to operate its Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle at its existing Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas (Figure S‐1). SpaceX's proposed operations include launches originating from this site, as well as landings at this site, in the Gulf of Mexico, or in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii. SpaceX must obtain an experimental permit and/or a vehicle operator license from the FAA for Starship/Super Heavy launch operations. Issuing an experimental permit or a vehicle operator license is considered a major federal action under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, as amended (42 United States Code [U.S.C.] 4321, et seq.), and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) NEPA‐implementing regulations (40 Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] Parts 1500–1508 1) and requires an environmental review. The FAA is the lead federal agency for this environmental review.
SpaceX has applied to the FAA for a license for the Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle. SpaceX may require a number of new or modified experimental permits or vehicle operator licenses from the FAA in order to execute its Starship/Super Heavy program over time. Thus, SpaceX has prepared a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) under the supervision of the FAA, which evaluates the potential environmental impacts of the activities associated with SpaceX's Starship/Super Heavy program. A programmatic document is a type of general, broad NEPA review from which subsequent NEPA documents can be tiered, focusing on the issues specific to the subsequent actions. The use of a programmatic NEPA document, and subsequent preparation of a project specific NEPA document, is referred to as “tiering” the environmental review. The FAA has recognized that a programmatic review and tiering may be appropriate “to sequence environmental documents from the early stage of a proposed action to a subsequent stage to help focus on issues that are ripe for decision and exclude from consideration issues not yet ripe or already decided.” The FAA may tier subsequent documents from this PEA to focus on environmental impacts specific to the Starship/Super Heavy program under a new or different license application.
The applicant has provided the FAA with a mission profile of proposed launch operations that is analyzed in this PEA. The FAA's Federal Action is to issue experimental permit(s) and/or a vehicle operator license to SpaceX for this mission profile. If SpaceX modifies or adds operations as part of its Starship/Super Heavy program in the future, the FAA would analyze the environmental impacts of those activities in a tiered environmental document, which would summarize the issues discussed in the PEA that remain applicable (e.g., the environment around the Boca Chica launch site) and concentrate on the issues specific to the subsequent action (e.g., a mission profile involving a new landing site).
The completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee that the FAA will issue an experimental permit or vehicle operator license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy launches at the
launch site. SpaceX's license application must also meet FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements per 14 CFR Chapter III.
The FAA published a draft PEA on September 17, 2021, for public review and comment, the scope of which addressed the potential environmental impacts associated with SpaceX's proposed operations as well as the construction of additional support infrastructure. Since the conclusion of the draft PEA public comment period, SpaceX made the following changes to its proposal:
- Removed construction and operation of the desalination plant, natural gas pretreatment system, liquefier, and power plant. SpaceX removed this infrastructure from its proposal in response to public and agency comments and other developments.
o The desalination plant was included in the draft PEA because it would have been used to facilitate deluge for the launch pad. SpaceX is still considering whether to use deluge water for the launch pad, but, in the event it will, it has decided that it will use truck water, rather than a desalination plant. A desalination plant is not in the reasonably foreseeable future.
o The natural gas pretreatment system and liquefier are no longer needed due to advances in the design and capabilities of SpaceX's Raptor engines. Previously, additional refinement of methane to purer levels than commercially available was anticipated to be needed. However, as a result of engine advances, SpaceX can rely on commercially available methane without refinement. Accordingly, SpaceX is no longer proposing a natural gas pretreatment system and liquefier.
o Because SpaceX is no longer proposing a desalination plant, natural gas pretreatment system, and liquefier, SpaceX does not require a power plant.
- Removed the “Program Development” phase in response to public and agency comments and other developments, including the advancement of Starship through testing under SpaceX's existing license2. Under the Proposed Action, SpaceX may continue to conduct some prototype testing and suborbital launches. However, SpaceX plans to shift focus to orbital launches and conduct fewer suborbital launch operations.
- Modified the Raptor engine and engine configuration. SpaceX increased the thrust of the Raptor engine; therefore, SpaceX has reduced the total number of engines. This change would not constitute any discernable changes in environmental impacts. An increase from 61.7 meganewtons (MN) to 74 MN would result in a less than 1 decibel change and would constitute a negligible change to the noise contours. The maximum thrust for Super Heavy would not exceed 74 MN. Additionally, modeled emissions of the modified Raptor engine were analyzed. Section 126.96.36.199 of the PEA and Appendix G were updated to reflect these changes. These changes would not constitute any discernable changes in environmental impacts.
Provisions contained in CEQ's NEPA‐implementing regulations and in FAA Order 1050.1F, Environmental Impacts: Policies and Procedures, require the preparation of a supplemental EA if the applicant makes substantial modifications in the proposed action that are relevant to environmental concerns or there are significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns or bearing on the proposed action or its impacts (see, e.g., FAA Order 1050.1F, Paragraph 9‐3). After independently reviewing SpaceX's project modifications noted above, the FAA does not consider these modifications to be “substantial” in the context of presenting new or additional potential impacts beyond the scope already addressed in the draft PEA. Further, the removal of the proposed infrastructure reduces the Proposed Action's anticipated environmental consequences.
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