Environmentalists hope test-launch scrub signals FAA scrutiny on SpaceX in South Texas

Trade

Report: Space company wants to drill for natural gas at its South Texas site

The sand dunes of Boca Chica Beach, Texas, are seen in November 2020 just blocks from SpaceX’s private launch facility. A launch set for Jan. 29, 2021, was scratched by the Federal Aviation Administration due to “safety concerns,” an FAA spokeswoman told Border Report. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — While SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was Tweeting his displeasure over the Federal Aviation Administration preventing a test launch of a controversial rocket, environmentalists told Border Report they welcome the regulatory agency stepping in more to oversee this remote launch facility on the Texas-Mexico border.

Musk tweeted Thursday that the “FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” and lamented that “humanity will never get to Mars” under its regulatory thumb.

An FAA spokeswoman told Border Report on Friday that the cancellation of the test launch of the SN9 at the SpaceX private launch facility was related to “outstanding safety issues.”

“We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight,” the spokeswoman said.

This is the first known FAA cancellation of a planned SpaceX test launch at this facility since the agency began conducting an environmental assessment (EA), the first since the Biden administration took over, and environmentalists told Border Report that they hope it signals more scrutiny from the federal agency over the goings on at the launch site near Boca Chica Beach, Texas.

The FAA is currently conducting an environmental assessment of the commercial space company’s request to expand to test and launch its Super Heavy rockets like the Starship spacecraft, which the company hopes one day to be able to fly humans to Mars.

Musk wants to launch these massive spacecraft from this private launch facility that was built a few years ago just blocks from the Gulf of Mexico in an environmentally sensitive area full of rare species of birds and wildlife.

Environmentalists have balked at what they say has been a lack of regulation over this burgeoning space company that has appeared to operate with great latitude, despite the ongoing environmental review and despite a few fiery explosions at this facility.

Last May, Border Report caught on video an explosion of a test of one of the rocket engines. And a couple months later the FAA announced it was conducting an environmental review. Public comments were accepted through last week.

The environmental review has been going on since last spring, and during this time, the FAA has allowed SpaceX to continue to fire up and test several rocket engines. On Dec. 9, SpaceX conducted its first high-altitude test flight of its Starship SN8 prototype over South Texas, which resulted in the spaceship exploding upon landing.

Jim Chapman

Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, says it is unusual for a federal regulatory agency to allow a company to conduct tests prior to completion of an environmental review and licenses issued.

He and other environmentalists have repeatedly expressed concerns to Border Report of what they say is a lack of oversight by the FAA on this site. But Friday’s actions gave Chapman some hope.

“The fact that the FAA is going by the book for a change is a good development,” Chapman said. “They’re following the law by doing that and they’re supposed to do the environmental evaluation before they issue new licenses and up until now they kind of haven’t been doing that.”

He said this is extremely important after recent reports that SpaceX wants to drill for natural gas at its South Texas site in order to help fuel its massive spacecrafts, and produce more power for the facility.

A live camera from Lab Padre on Boca Chica Beach, Texas, indicates the scrubbed launch on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, of a test of SpaceX’s SN9 rocket. (Screenshot)

Methane is the lead ingredient in natural gas, and Business Insider reported that SpaceX plans to drill “up to five natural gas wells” and may build facilities tied to “gas extraction, storage, and electricity generation.”

The article cites an early draft of the FAA’s environmental review, and says “each flight of a 16-story Starship spaceship and its 23-story Super Heavy rocket booster may require more than 1,400 metric tons (3.1 million pounds) of liquid methane,” which could be extracted from the South Texas soil.

References to “natural gas systems” needed at the SpaceX facility are mentioned in a draft EA report.

Chapman says the draft shows that SpaceX has vastly changed its mission for this facility and the FAA should take serious note of this.

“What’s come out in the last week is very different than what SpaceX’s initial plans were. It’s clear they are evolving this facility,” Chapman said.

Howard Searight, a manager for the Safety Authorization Division for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, in July sent Chapman a letter informing him that an Environmental Assessment was being conducted — not a more stringent Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which Chapman had requested and would have required public hearings.

The letter also noted that at any time during the environmental review, the FAA can upgrade to an EIS if they find cause to do so.

Friday’s scrubbed launch, Chapman said, might just be signaling that the agency has noted something seriously worrisome that could require additional scrutiny.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

California Correspondent Latest Stories

More Salvador Rivera

El Paso Correspondent Latest Stories

More Julian Resendiz

South Texas Correspondent Latest Stories

More Sandra Sanchez

Border Report Correspondents' Stories

Latest Stories

Washington D.C.

More Washington D.C.
borderlogo

About Border Report

The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.