Prior to Starship's inaugural launch, environmental policy expert Eric Roesch was outspoken about the possibility of catastrophe. As the rocket launched, it kicked up massive clouds of dust and decimated its launchpad, scattering large chunks of concrete into delicate marine and coastal sanctuaries nearby. Eric blames both SpaceX and its regulatory body, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for allowing the company to skirt responsibility in its environmental reporting and mitigating its impact on its surrounding wilderness. He joins the show to discuss the proper role of environmental regulations, why he believes the FAA was irresponsible in approving SpaceX's launch licenses, and how you can simultaneously protect the environment and local wildlife while still pursuing an ambitious path to space.
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Sarah Al-Ahmed: Welcome everyone to our monthly Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed, the host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society, and I'm joined today by Casey Dreier, our Chief of Space Policy.
Casey Dreier: Hey, Sarah, happy to be back.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: It has been a ridiculous month between our Digital Day of Action, our campaign to try to save VERITAS, everything that went down with SpaceX's Starship, which you're going to get into today, and everything that's going on in Washington D.C. with budget negotiations and the debt ceiling. I'm sure it has been a ridiculous month for you. How are you doing?
Casey Dreier: Good. It's exciting times. Let me tease the interview first because that's the big thing we want to talk about today, which is with Eric Roesch, who runs the Substack called ESG Hound. He's an environmental regulations expert and background in science and has been a noted critic of SpaceX's environmental regulatory filings and FAA's approval of Starship launch in this very delicate eco habitat around Boca Chica in Texas. We saw with Starship that it was a surprisingly, let's say, energetic event, launching from that pad without a flame trench or a water suppression system. And it looked pretty bad I think in terms of the destruction and also the debris that it flew everywhere. And so Eric, I wanted to have talk about because of this real fascinating to me intersection of space with environmental policy and environmental regulations. And when those two sometimes combust or are at tension, the awareness and the problems that this could pose for our efforts to get into space in the long term by potentially alienating parts of the public or creating environmental tensions or as what happened, they're getting now sued by a consortium of environmental groups to ground the spacecraft. There are real consequences here if you don't follow the letter of the law very well. And Eric walks us through that. We talk about environmental policy and we talk about the tension between maintaining environmental sanctity and progress, which is I think an unresolved tension in our society.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Environmental policy and how it relates to space exploration in general has always been a fascinating subject. I've had some really fascinating conversations with people, particularly around commercial space and Starship, what fuels they use, how they impact their local areas. It's a huge subject and I'm really glad that you're going to be covering it.
Casey Dreier: Tell me if this resonates with you. I felt this moment after the Starship launch was resonant to me of the time right after Jeff Bezos launched into space.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yes.
Casey Dreier: Where it was a period where the space news broke through to the broader public. And as a space fan and advocate, I was almost shocked like, there are people who are not on board with this or they see this and they don't get the fact that this is really, don't you this truly exciting and revolutionary and this could transform how we go into the solar system. But instead they see debris flying into protected sanctuaries, they see explosions and they see failure. And obviously then Musk himself does not necessarily help in this polarized environment in which we live in. That's a problem we need to start dealing with. All of our general societal goodwill for space exploration has come from an era of public entities that have public commitments and public oversight. We are now in an era of mixed public and private and private individuals as I've talked about before, bring with them a whole loaded bag of idiosyncrasies and personalities and associations that can create conflict and tension with this overall positive public view of space. And space succeeds when broadly people like it. It makes it a lot easier to do. And if we start to polarize, that's to me the worst possible thing that can happen to space flight, is if it becomes polarized, not even politically, but among certain types of people online and or groups or camps or progress versus environmentalists. This is ultimately as you know, a very good thing going into space. But we need to remember that there's a lot of people who remain unconvinced, understand their critiques, and then really think about how we both operate by going into space and also adhere to and address concerns that are legitimate here on earth.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Now is also the perfect time to be having these discussions because we're just at the beginning of this age of commercial space. And we've given a lot of thought to how nations operate in space, but I'm really glad that we're having these conversations before entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic or any of these go out into space without any of these regulations in place, because space should bring out the best in us.
Casey Dreier: I think I discussed in the interview, if you're going to pitch to a random person going to the moon and killing cute shore birds, you're not getting a lot of support from that. They're going to choose the cute animals and I think it's savvy of space entities and organizations not to do that. And again, this is why I thought it was a great conversation. It's a bit more critical than I think most people, particularly space fans hear about SpaceX and the successes. And I think that's really important. And so I look forward to hearing the feedback from our members and listeners about the upcoming interview we'll have.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. And if any of our members want to really interact with us in this space, Casey has been doing a wonderful job of sharing all of our space policy stuff in our member community app, which you can find online. If you want to check it out, you can look for it at community.planetary.org. We've been having a great time in there. And another thing that we did in there recently, this month we had our first Digital Day of Action, a little different from what we've done in the past with our day of actions, but I had a great time in there and we recapped what went down with our day of action in a previous episode of Planetary Radio that aired on April 26th if anybody wants to listen to it, that was a great time.
Casey Dreier: It was. And it was new this year, so we're going to always do two big events now annually at The Planetary Society. One is going to be our in-person Congressional Visits Day, our day of action, and we are back now in person post COVID and you can register online if you want to join us in Washington D.C. September 17th and 18th this year at planetary.org/dayofaction. And to lead up to that now, we are always going to pair it with a Digital Day of Action, something you can do from home if you don't have the ability or finances to travel. We held what we call a prep rally online where we talk about how to effectively advocate. We hosted special guests from the VERITAS mission to Venus, talking about this incredible potential there. We had a number of ways that people could write letters to Congress, share important space advocacy messages on social media. We had a great turnout on our community in this event, and we hope to build this and continue this every year, pairing it with our in-person day of action. We always have a digital component to it. So everyone everywhere can participate and become a space advocate and get better at it. We learn by doing.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And thank you to everyone that participated in that and to all of our members that help support these events, honestly, we can't do this show or actually host these advocacy events without you. So if you're already a member, thank you. But if you'd like to join our organization and help us push forward a thoughtful and beautiful future for humanity and space, now's a good time to join The Planetary Society. You can check us out at planetary.org/join. All right, well, I'm really excited to listen to this conversation.
Casey Dreier: I'll preview this by just saying we start going into a lot of acronyms, which I'm sorry about. I try to keep up with them. But just a couple of acronyms, NEPA, that's the National Environmental Policy Act. It is the key piece of legislation passed in 1970 that mandates certain types of environmental disclosure, about activities through big projects development. And that is really what's coming into play and what Eric is critiquing SpaceX here a lot. So that's NEPA. And then we have a lot of discussion about environmental regulations and gas terminals, he calls them LNGs, that's liquified natural gas. That's just ways of transporting methane that Starship uses to launch with. I think those are the two key ones, but I think you'll get the gist of it. And again, it's a very fascinating discussion. So yeah, here's me and Eric talking about Starship and environmental policy. Eric, thank you for joining me on the Space Policy Edition today.
Eric Roesch: Thanks for having me, Casey.
Casey Dreier: This is an area that I have to confess I do not know as much about as you do, which is why I'm happy to have you on. Environmental policy, environmental regulations, things that are in a sense not really directly yet related with what I consider or think about mostly with space flight, but as we saw with the Starship launch starting to intersect pretty significantly in that area. So for our listeners, before we really get into this, what's your background in environmental policy and how did you get into this area? To helps establish where you're coming from in this discussion.
Eric Roesch: I'm a scientist by background in terms of like a bench scientist. I got my chemistry degree, actually double degree in chemistry in molecular biology from the University of Colorado in 2006. Through a series of happenstance events I ended up being a regulatory guy at a biosafety level three laboratory that actually dealt with tuberculosis and related infections. And so I took over a bunch of waste compliance, some environmental stuff, a lot of things such as calibrating hood equipment. So biosafety level three, again is, I know there's a lot of chat about it in the COVID era, but basically I decided that I wanted to go a little bit more macro than the bench level background I had. And so I went back and got my master's degree from Colorado School of Mines, graduated in say 2012. But during that time I actually switched and I was a regulator with the state of Colorado, actually specialized in oil and gas and general industry air pollution, so in other words, state and federal air pollution. And then I ended up in industry a couple years later. I ended up working in oil and gas in both auditing and moved into a little bit of process safety. I think a lot of aerospace people are much more familiar with that concept, the types of flight authorizations that go in where you look at failure modes and preventing big accidents. I started doing a lot more of that with things like oil refineries and gas plants. And I moved down to the Houston area in 2015 where I live now, and I've basically worked for very large chemical and oil and gas companies in particular in pipelining, refining gas plants, that kind of stuff. And so when you work in that industry you deal with a backbone industry, but that gets a lot of well-deserved I think, attention from the public due to its importance, its ubiquitousness and then also the obvious harms that it can cause. And so you get involved with a lot of community meetings, community outreaches, you end up doing a lot of things that are PR type stuff where you're placating the community that know this gas pipeline we're going to build under you, probably won't explode, but you have to prepare people for that stuff. And so from a policy standpoint you work for these large infrastructure companies that have been around forever and you learn how to choose your words and you don't really get to talk about stuff. A couple years ago I started, I actually want to say five years ago I started on the sly as a, I don't want to say I'm a tree hugger at heart, but I'm very conscientious about the environment. I started doing anonymous comments to FERC proposals for things like LNG terminals, some refining projects along the coast, because I grew up in Colorado, but I have been here since 2015. I've really just fallen in love with the Texas coast. And so I started doing these types of outreach and I basically ended up talking on a publication. I started on a lark to talk about policy stuff. I ended up talking about SpaceX for a roundabout reason, which is that in their initial environmental proposal that was modified at one point, they had suggested building a utility sized power plant, a LNG liquefier and a gas refining unit in the middle of this very small and sensitive area. And so I quickly got into it and I was the only person writing about policy and got lots of interest in this SpaceX project in Boca Chica, and I just kept writing.
Casey Dreier: I'll plug your Substack ESG Hound, which the reason I'm talking to you now is that a few weeks ago you published a piece called SpaceX's Texas Rocket is going to cause a lot more damage than anyone thinks. And congratulations, your analysis was proven true I suppose. You have a lot of other posts going back years looking at this aspect of LNG liquified natural gas, right?
Eric Roesch: That's correct, yes.
Casey Dreier: Methane and all the other infrastructure requirements that SpaceX is proposing to build in its site to service Starship. So you've been following this for a few years. So your background really is, you have a scientific background and then a background in the regulatory process.
Eric Roesch: Right.
Casey Dreier: This is an area, again, I think that's really fascinating because so Starship launches for the first time a few weeks ago and it became one of those fascinating moments for me. Obviously I'm a big space nerd and a space fan, and what I experience in my day-to-day life, and maybe a lot of listeners to this show, is that space is great. It's the greatest thing. We're really excited about it and the people we talk to are excited about it. It tends to be received well when you talk to other people about it. But sometimes when it hits a certain awareness in the public sphere, and I was thinking about this as it related to when Jeff Bezos went into space the first time, that suddenly there's this whole part of the society that isn't so excited about what's happening in space. And the Starship launch hit something that reminded me of that moment, where the explosion itself, the debate whether it was a success or a failure and wanting it to be one or the other, but then also the environmental impact of the launch itself. So you had called this out in advance, but to most observers it seemed to be a surprise. And you saw pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times and other major outlets suddenly talking about the fact that Starship is launching in this small, in Boca Chica, which is surrounded by protected federal lands. Seeing this critique and suddenly realizing this is something we tend to take for granted, that space is cool and people are for this. But as we start intersecting more on these broader issues, I feel it's really important to understand the problems here that's starting to interface. And so I'd like to hear a little bit about what is Boca Chica, what makes it unique from a protected standpoint, and why is this something that we should, just as an area, why this triggers your awareness of worth caring about from an environmental perspective?
Eric Roesch: I guess I want to start off by saying that the environmental disciplines are really wide-ranging. And so I have to be careful when I'm talking about endangered habitat because stuff like rangeland management, endangered species is not my specialty. I do want to be careful about that. But generally speaking, on a very basic level, it is home to both state and federally owned lands that are there for a very specific reason. And that is they serve as a refuge to various endangered and protected species, including several shore birds, Sea of Cortez as well. So on that really basic level, I think that's where a lot of the primary concern stems from, is that we have this really unique habitat. It's low tidal flats. There's essentially like an offshore barrier that prevents large waves from crashing up and actually protects from hurricanes quite well as well. So just that and the fact that it exists at the base of the Rio Grande river, has some really unique physical and geological characteristics that make it a stopping point where a lot of wintering birds will spend half the year before they go up to the Great Plains. We're talking about regulatory, just straight up protection. It's land that's owned by government agencies that exist primarily to maintain the lands as they are. There's also been some controversy because of, beach access has been a big talking point, and that is more of a local issue, although it does come into play with how they do permitting, but there's a community there that's used that beach for some time and many of them feel locked out. And so that's the other portion of it too.
Casey Dreier: That's an interesting point I think in terms of, a lot of the discussion I've seen on this just reverts into a very polarizing perspective. But at the end of the day, federal and state protected lands, whether or not you politically align with or philosophically agree with what the environmental responsibility should be, they do have existing environmental responsibility to those lands at the end of the day, by current law. I think a lot of the discussion can even go to, well, who cares about the birds in these places? Who cares about X? But it's almost besides the point because they're federal protected lands. And so as it stands now, you're supposed to protect them.
Eric Roesch: And that's exactly right. And that's why it's so funny because people are like, well, you predict this is what happened. And I'm like, I didn't get it 100% right. I tried to focus on the process, because it's like we have a legal process. I'm a policy wonk. I'm a rules wonk. I read the Federal Register for Fun. I'm one of those people.
Casey Dreier: Yes, yes.
Eric Roesch: So on that basis is like, yeah, well we have a rule of laws and neither applies to everyone, or it may as well not exist. It's my framework. But I think there's a really interesting point there, because I know you and I talked about it in advance when we were preparing for this. I find the Kennedy Space Center comparison just really apt, because it was built in a different time. And so people say, well, you couldn't do that now. And I think that's a fair point. I think a lot of this frustration comes from people saying, we don't build these cool things anymore and we've got this new era of space in front of us where we can do cool things and we're stuck in our ways and we're not going to do any big projects anymore. I think that's actually a really fair point. And I think that's where a lot of the frustration comes from.
Casey Dreier: Environmental regulations themselves have evolved pretty significantly since the 60s. And the key thing here is NEPA, which is an acronym that is thrown around a lot. Before we get into that, what does NEPA mean? It came from the 1970s, is that correct? The laws passed in the 1970s.
Eric Roesch: It was pre Clean Air Act, so I believe it was, I think actually you're right, it was either 1969 or 1970. It was actually the bedrock environmental law, the initial one. It was basically we had this massive post World War II expansion of our economy, which involved a lot of highway building, building a lot of industry, basically we built a lot of rail as well. We cut highways through the middle of cities. And I think in conjunction people will point out Rachel Carson's seminal book, Silent Spring, which it's not perfect, but it gives you a good sign of the times where people were suddenly paying attention to these issues. And what NEPA was intended to do, is it said, okay, if we're going to do a big government sponsored project, at the very least we should go through and tell people what the impacts of it will be. And so NEPA exists primarily as a disclosure law, and it was actually intended to be not super overbearing, which is what in fairness has become. It's become a lot of paperwork. I think some of it's really important and some of it's probably not the best use of resources if we're speaking purely objectively. But it existed to say, and I used an example the other day, if I want to go to the Everglades and I for whatever reason I want to be able to dig a pit, throw a bunch of tires in there, light them on fire, and just have that burn 24/7/365. And I say that example, not because that's something we would do, but NEPA doesn't actually prohibit you from doing any activity as long as the impacts are disclosed. And so it became a way for people to stop projects because of the disclosure, because of the requirements. And that's been a long process. I think some of it's been very good, I'm not going to just defend everything about it, but it puts the burden on government agencies that if they're going to go in and do a big project that can change a community, that at the very least they have to disclose the rules. And so I guess before we talk about the intricacies of NEPA to the extent you want to, I think it's really fair to put that in comparison with the later environmental laws, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act in particular, because I always use the example of Houston where I live now. In 1985, the Houston metro area was something like two and a half million people. Currently it is over seven million people. So you think about all those extra cars on the road. In 1985 the refining capacity since then to today, and this is just crude oil processing in the Greater Houston area, has something like doubled on a volume basis. Natural gas processing and storage and transportation has gone up 10 or 20 fold. Similar to terminal of those large storage tanks. And so the reason I bring that up is that in the face of all those increases in what we call vault organic carbons, which is a precursor to ground level ozone and what we consider as smog, in light of all those factors that you would think that pollution would be out of control, ambient air quality here in Houston is better than it's been in decades. And so you talk to people who are here in the 1980s, you would rarely ever see a blue sky, and we see them all the time. It's not perfect and it needs to get better, and there's other pollutants to be worried about. But on a real basic level, that happened because of the Clean Air Act. That happened because of standards on automakers and then control requirements and all these things that were forced upon us that if you look at an individual project, people were like, well, this seems over the top, but in aggregate, some of these rules and in particular the Clean Water Act, you cannot deny that they've been successful in achieving what they set out to do. Those laws are what people think of and they tend to be based more on how many pounds of emissions are you putting out? How many particles of this type of discharge are you putting in the water? And so it's easier to track. Whereas a lot of these NEPA rules, and in particular things like endangered species, you have to extrapolate into the future. You're looking at, what is the wildlife habitat going to look at 30 years from now? We may not know, the results aren't necessarily as tangible, and that's why they bring this really emotional component that works well on people who support and oppose projects. So going from there, back to NEPA, NEPA was really our first attempt as a nation to be like, how do we get some of this stuff under control so we don't just ruin our entire planet in our communities?
Casey Dreier: Well, what's so interesting to me just from a policy perspective, is that this is in a sense the public imposing friction on purpose, strategic friction in order to direct the outcome of certain types of activities of industry. And clearly industry just itself into environmental controls. It's interesting to see this story replay here. And I'm wondering, it's like these environmental laws were placed on industries that were extent and pretty well established at the time. And when you are talking about something like SpaceX with Starship, it's very rapid, it's very experimental, and in a sense it's much smaller of an impact than the oil industry or the auto industry. Is it appropriate to apply these types of high friction regulatory systems to, in a sense, an experimental developmental project? Or will that just unnecessarily in a sense, slow it down and then we get no, in a sense, transformational launch access to space or those fundamentally incompatible do you think or where's the appropriate balance here? Because I think that's in a sense what people are arguing about.
Eric Roesch: Right. Okay, let's actually look specifically at the project in Boca Chica. Let's look at it from just talking about the facts. I've got most of the dates in my head, and then I apologize in advance if I get a year or a month off or something like that. But basically-
Casey Dreier: We'll asterisk those. And you've written about this extensively and people can check your written work for those exact dates.
Eric Roesch: Yes, they sure can. I want to say like 2013 ish, SpaceX proposed to build a small launch site. They had considered a few other sites and they settled upon Boca Chica. And so they did some community outreach, they hired some PR firms, they went and gave presentations. They basically just started a NEPA process from there. And they actually got an initial environmental impact statement, I think was issued in 2015. Now for that project, so let's talk about the launch site they have. They own about 20 acres. I'm not talking about the production area, I'm talking about just the launch area. They own about 20 acres, only about, I want to say only 12 or 13 of it is currently developed. And this initial project had nothing to do with, I think they called it the BFR or whatever at this time when they were first talking about it in, I want to say 2015 or 2016. And so this launch site was intended for a handful of Falcon 9 launches per year. That was the original intent of the site. And there were people complaining back then, but you can say, okay, well for a rocket that, especially by the time I think they had that one mishap, I want to say in 2016 in Kennedy Space Center.
Casey Dreier: The pad explosion.
Eric Roesch: Yeah, the pad explosion. Correct. But I think besides that, and especially since then, you want to talk about, I get a lot of flak being a SpaceX spectator, but if you want to talk about an impressive program, the Falcon 9 is rock solid. They can turn them around really quick, they can reuse, they rarely have to scrub or cancel flights if it's not for an outside factor. It's an incredibly good platform. And so I guess looking at that, the intent was to do these one-off launches of a fully developed rocket. And at that point when they were toying around with the idea of BFR, right? So we look at this, I want to say it's like 2016, that era. Is that about when they were talking about that initially?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Eric Roesch: My argument is that, so at that point, that's your decision point for where are we going to do these things? And what happened instead is over the course of the next several years, the next four or five years as they were developing this program, they never made long-term site plans. They did it on the fly. And so as they were starting to test some of the early tank and Starship prototypes, they were going back to the FAA and saying, hey, can you do a written reevaluation saying the impacts won't be that much more? They ratcheted up from there. And they didn't propose to reopen this NEPA. It was actually FAA that was like, hey, we have to do this or we're going to get in big trouble. But at that point it was already like 2020. And so I get what people say with that argument, but I would also say, well, you had years to plan this. And was Boca Chica the best site for it at the time? Is there more land you could've bought? Could you have done offsets with Department of Interior and converted another portion of the Texas shoreline into a different refuge that would offset these impacts? I guess what I'm saying is we talk about iterating fast and I get it, but the question is really, they actually did have plenty of time to go through and do these processes the right way. And that includes picking out maybe a different site, maybe working with Kennedy's Space Center to develop something else. Maybe if they wanted to keep it there, to really engage the community and say, how do we offset this? And it feels to me like they wanted to say, well, we wanted to do this now and then they just wanted the public and the regulators go along with it and they've been pretty successful with it. But you ruffle enough feathers along the way and people are going to be mad and they're going to point out everything you do wrong. And you can correct me here. I know one of the critiques when people say, well, they should just be launching from Kennedy Space Center, is that there's too much traffic there. There's not enough stuff. I think to give credit to that point when we're talking about policies, yeah, we should have developed another space port. Absolutely we should have. But is the right way to do it to have a private company come in, buy 20 acres and say, well deal with the consequences, we light off. I don't think so. But that's basically what FAA has allowed in my view.
Casey Dreier: What I'm hearing from you is basically in 2014, 20 15 SpaceX got, I think you called it a draft or a provisional environmental impact assessment.
Eric Roesch: No, they got a finalized EIS. The EA process that they ended up going through with is actually a newer development. NEPA was only really set up to do projects with significant impacts. You had to do this full EIS.
Casey Dreier: Okay. I saw there's something called a draft programmatic environmental assessment. Is that related? I start getting lost into the which regulations mean what.
Eric Roesch: These are all part of NEPA. That's right. What we saw is, well programmatics another thing that involves more than just one site. But I don't want to go in that too much. I like to get wonky, but I don't want to get too wonky here. The EIS when I talk about your tire fire and a pit in the middle of the Everglades, that is for something that has a significant environmental impact and above. And once the rules, and I don't know the exact timing here, but basically once activist groups figured out that they could, I don't want to say hijack the law, because it was what it was intended for. Once they realized they could go through and say, hey, you didn't consider this, you didn't consider that when you're doing this full EIS, the government started to realize that we had these projects that were maybe a little bit smaller that could still use a nice once over but maybe didn't require the full enchilada. And that is your EA, and that's your environmental assessment, which is basically just a mini version of an EIS where the impacts would be below what we call a significant level. That's what SpaceX proposed, along with FAA. They proposed in order to take this site from the small launchpad it is to a large launch facility with development, tests, all the different things, landings, all the stuff that they wanted to do, we're going to use this EA process instead of the EIS process. And again, I would probably argue if you went through the full EIS, again going back to our tire fire, and I don't want to say this is exactly a tire fire, I may disagree with it being placed there, but from a NEPA standpoint, they didn't do the large project. And so essentially by doing this process that takes less time, that has less requirements, they made it so that they actually gave themselves, I don't want to say like permit requirements, they gave themselves regulatory thresholds where if they say that an impact is going to be below a significant level, they better do it or they will have some legal problems in the future.
Casey Dreier: I see. So if I can restate this to make sure I understand, so basically what SpaceX said, they went this easier route years ago and then have gone back and modified it without having to redo this full heavy-handed environmental impact assessment?
Eric Roesch: Well actually no. The original 2015 was an EIS. What they did is they did what they called written reevaluations. I guess I want to be careful here, but they did written reevaluations because the original EIS did not have exploding tiny little prototype Starships included in it. So the FAA had to go through and say, here's why it's acceptable. You keep adding more and more of those and at some point you've ratcheted from what the site was into something different and you'd have to start a brand new process over. That's where we hit hit in that 2020 to 21 period. That's when they hit that process where they were permitting the site as a Starship test, development and launch facility as compared to what it was before, which was a Falcon 9 occasional launch facility.
Casey Dreier: This is the period that you really reserve for your harshest critique. Is that correct? This period where suddenly the fundamental need and use of this site changes from what it was, and not just for SpaceX in terms of what they're representing. And I think if I understand you correctly, NEPA just requires full disclosure about here's this massive level, we have to analyze at a broad level the full impact of what we're going to do to an existing space. And your claim is that SpaceX has not been doing that, that they've been underselling themselves or diminishing what they've been doing in order to avoid the harsher or longer term reevaluations. But they've also been getting approval from the FAA, which is what controls the ability of SpaceX to launch. I think I have a quote from you here that you'd said that the SpaceX FAA and the FAA has hired contractors who help evaluate these applications appear to have been actively complicit in greenwashing and minimizing the impacts from a very public operation run by the richest and arguably most famous man in the world. And so what's the failings in your perspective of the FAA in this situation?
Eric Roesch: Actually it's funny because your question that you just asked was like, well, SpaceX did this. I want to be clear that I have plenty of critiques about the culture of SpaceX, which I think is probably the reason that they move so fast as well. I understand the upsides there, a little bit of that tech move fast and break things ethos. But really at the end of the day the onus for this does come down to the FAA. This is on the FAA. They are the sponsors of the program. They're required to certify it. They can do stuff in every single project you see, I bring up FERC and LNG terminals. They obviously work with the company that's developing it, but that NEPA submittal, I can sit there and say, SpaceX did this, that and the other. But if we're talking about from a perfectly irrational business perspective, if the agency is going to let you get away with it, you may as well. I would say at the end of the day, my critique is 75% on FAA for this. It's really blase attitude. I had this realization, I'm going to bring up Kennedy Space Center again, is that if you actually look at their requirements under NEPA, my suspicion is that there's probably some, I want to say just they've gotten complacent because NASA themselves, who's a very, very cautious agency and that goes through to all their departments. They do almost all the work that goes into the NEPA documents, which then goes into the launch licenses that are granted out of Kennedy Space Center. And so it's really easy if you have a partner that's doing most of these with you that is conservative almost to a fault, that it's easy to get locked into being like, well, we just trust our launch partners because we don't have the expertise to do it. I think that may be a good explanation for why this particular project is different than most of the other NEPA stuff FAA does in commercial space.
Casey Dreier: Interesting. That they've gotten too credulous in a sense based on their past experience with a well-intentioned partner. What are some examples, where do you think specifically the FAA failed in their approval process, that really rise to the top for you of things that shouldn't have happened?
Eric Roesch: Well, I've told this to people that get really angry at what I write. I was like, you should have hoped that they didn't try to put some of that natural gas infrastructure in, because that's what got me riled up. And I think at the end of the day they pulled all that stuff, which was good. I was very pleased to see that. I've pointed this out before. One of the things structures that they said they were going to build was a 250 megawatt power plant. And if you were to build a standalone in the middle of nowhere, 250 megawatt combined cycle gas turbine power plant on federal land with federal funding, you would've to do a separate IES, the whole enchilada of NEPA just for that standalone power plant. And that's not a surprise to anyone, that has a significant impact. And so for me, I'm like, first of all you've got all this rocket, you've got this wildlife, you've got this community concern about beach closers, you've got all this other stuff, and then on top of it you're like, oh yeah, PS, we're going to throw in three separate processing units that would arguably merit their own extensive environmental reviews if done in conjunction with a federal facility. As a framework that's what really just set me off, because I'm like, I have no idea how someone with that agency and then the consultants they hired, how you could just sit there and say, well this is an okay way to use this smaller EA process. I'm still baffled that that even happened.
Casey Dreier: But at this point it's no longer an issue. Is that correct? They've moved away from it.
Eric Roesch: Yes, correct. You could argue those were never going to happen or whatever, but they did put them in the documents. That portion of it has moved away. And so I guess the reason I bring those up is because that's why I got interested from my background and I think it set the tone for some of the other stuff you saw that I've highlighted.
Casey Dreier: We saw the launch and it basically blew apart the launchpad area and threw debris everywhere. Looks like small fires were started and a big dust cloud and just more destruction than anyone anticipated, so was the claim. And that really seems to be raising this awareness of this impact aspect. What would actually need to be done, from a regulatory standpoint, is it too late? I know that FAA is doing a mishap investigation, but that's because a rocket blew up. What is the proper responsibility, do you think? Or is Boca Chica incompatible with the type of exploratory rocketry that SpaceX wants to do, from an environmental regulatory perspective?
Eric Roesch: I really honestly do believe it's the latter. That being said, you have to calibrate the fact that, for example, in NEPA there are specific provisions where if we are in the middle of a war, if enough of the secretaries under the executive office, they could say we're going to just completely forego NEPA. That process does exist. I don't know if it's ever been deployed before, I don't believe it has, but that process exists. That gets into the political will. That's always a factor when you're talking about development and permitting. Those things certainly play in. But I think from a basic standpoint, this is the example I gave, is that the orbital launchpad in Boca Chica, their full property is something like 20 acres. If you go to 39A at Kennedy Space Center, one of the large rocket launch pads, it's something like 175 acres. So you're talking about an eightfold or so increase in area. And so just on that really basic level, if you have land around there that is not owned by them, that is also protected habitat. I guess I don't don't see how it works fundamentally long term. And to be frank with you, it's struck me that I think SpaceX realizes this as well, because they have hedged a lot more about like we're going to move operations here. I know they've been doing a bunch of stuff at Kennedy Space Center. I think the initial vision that was pitched that this would be like the star port to the stars and we'd have this city here and whatever, I think you know can see over the last two years those have been ratcheted back. And I think it's, some of it is that understanding that we'll be lucky to be able to launch four or five times a year here and that would be a win. They have not outright said that, but that's been my take reading between the lines when you see what they say.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of Casey's interview with Eric Roesch right after this break.
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Casey Dreier: A lot seems to hinge on the interpretation of the word significant to me when I've been reading through this in terms of significant impact, and SpaceX having to operate below the threshold of significant impact to the environment or even find a way to mitigate significant impact. From again, your past in working this in the regulatory perspective, how do people interpret, how do you define significance for something so broad as the environment and to say, do you accept the 100 birds killed a year, 1,000 or 10 or zero, what helps set those levels of performance?
Eric Roesch: Well, there's 40, 50 years of case law that talks about some of these very specific issues. There is an advisory board that basically writes rules, I want to say. They more give guidance documents. And that's the CEQ, the Council on Environmental Quality, that's part of the executive branch. The courts will look at those, they'll look at previous case law. They'll also look at, and the FAA has their own guidebook for what they consider significant. So what they'll say is if the air pollution is above this amount per year, that that's a significant factor. And some of them are much squishier and have interpretation, but the agencies have, they've figured out ways to define them so that don't, you don't want to get sued for every single NEPA project you put out. And so part of the issue here is that significance level. But on a more basic level, I think the big thing is that is the dust cloud we saw, the actual spread of debris was not described really at all in the documents they did produce even for an incident where the rocket itself blew up on the pad. And so I think if we're talking about illustration of where the problem is, again, NEPA says that you have to just describe the impacts and especially if you're using this smaller approval, if we have evidence in hand that you've not foreseen a consequence that many people would say is obvious, then that itself demonstrates that there was a problem with the process.
Casey Dreier: Again, some of those, like the Washington Post had a great piece that showed the video of as the rocket was taking off, all these debris splashing into the ocean miles away. And it just was a shocking, when you have that small of a footprint and in terms of the actual land that they owns and the rocket is launching, quote unquote, successfully, it didn't explode until far out four minutes into the flight, what would a full explosion look like if something that large? I want to quote something here and see your response to it. And this is from someone called Elon Musk and he was saying just the other day that, "The debris is basically just sand and rock and it's not toxic at all or anything." He said it's just like a sandstorm essentially. Basically a human made sandstorm. We don't want to do that again. But he was in a sense downplaying that. Does that fly in terms of environmental? Is that an accurate way to describe this from the sense of the Clean Air Act or the NEPA review? Or does this again come down to what significant means? Is it just rock and sand? Is that accurate or is there real issues here to consider from a broader community health and environmental perspective?
Eric Roesch: I think Musk's true genius is how he deploys language. I think this is a perfect example of that, right? Because he chooses non-toxic, and I saw a bunch of people online especially, they're like, there's rocket fuel everywhere or whatever, because people have this idea that it's hydrazine or it's kerosene or whatever. I think he mentioned specifically the plume. And yes, the definitionally by hazard laws and how we think about toxicity, yeah, methane and oxygen combusted together that's not a toxic chemical. It's not bio persistent, doesn't bioaccumulate, it's not immediately carcinogenic. If you get stuck in the middle of a methane cloud, could you run out of oxygen and die? Yes. But that's not what we think of as toxic. And so there's some truth there to it. And I think that's the genius portion of it. But the environmental impact, it isn't just whether something's toxic. It is whether you've altered an environment to an extent that it causes more damage than either people would expect or is allowed. And so I think from just that standpoint alone, I think the thing that surprised me the most was that dust cloud coming in. For me, my background, I wrote my master's thesis on plume modeling. I love talking about air events and all this stuff. And I was like, well, this is a problem with NEPA, but I didn't think people would be as viscerally struck by it as they were. And this includes people I know who talk to locals, because I think it was just that visual reminder that this is something there that could cause a lot of problems. And so going back to that, I think we could talk about debris or sand. We don't know what the actual chemical composition of different things that were shredded by 2,400 degree Fahrenheit flame. I would say the characterization of just sand is at the minimum too early to tell. I think it's pretty disingenuous. And again, rocks being scattered on these pretty sensitive algal flats. I don't think that that characterization is fair. But as always with Musk, there's some truth in there that I think is worth paying attention to. Because when I talked to the New York Times for that first piece about the dust cloud, and for a few other journalists, they're like, well, what's the toxicity of this dust cloud? I'm not saying they were trying to sensationalize news, but the first thought is like, okay, is this another East Palestine? I said, no, no, hold up. Let's not go down that road because we don't know, and I wouldn't want to make that assumption because it's patently unfair.
Casey Dreier: And East Palestine, that's the train derailment, the chemical train derailment that happened in Ohio. And I wonder actually if that was the predicate of why just the visual of the smoke cloud maybe resonated at a more visceral level, than maybe it would've without that.
Eric Roesch: That very well could be. And the history of making environmental change is often really bad things happen. But it's until you get, that visual representation of the things that I'm talking about, I think that's more powerful. I can write a billion words about how they did a bad job of assessing risk or predicting this, that and the other, or not following this process. But when you see an image that shows, even if someone doesn't understand the rules, there's this intuitive feeling that that doesn't quite look right. And the historical example that everyone mentions is that the Cuyahoga River that goes through Cleveland used to just catch on fire all the time. And that was really, those PR pictures were a huge driver for like, okay, we need the Clean Water Act now. And so I think just remembering that those, the powerful images of rockets going off, that awe and wonder you feel, I get that. I love that. But just know that our emotional response to big things happen visually, isn't always going to be on wonder. Sometimes it'll be horror or fear or disgusted. And I think that's important to recognize.
Casey Dreier: I think that's a really important point. Thank you for bringing that up because this is something at the core, again, as people know, I am very pro space. I want space to happen. I want Starship. NASA's going to land on the moon because of Starship. I want this to succeed. My frustration, let's put it this way, with SpaceX and Musk's approach to this, was that they were taking at best cavalier attitude towards exactly what just elucidated, right? This idea that if it blows up or something goes wrong or if they skirted or shortcutted through a lot of the environmental review, that if and when something does go wrong, the visual, when it reaches that public consciousness level of people who aren't big space fans like me, they're not just going to innately see that as, oh well, another rocket, it was successful hurrah, like, let's do another one next week. It will look ominous at best. And if there's a sense of that there's a lack of trust or if in Musk's case that he's gone and almost purposely cultivated a very polarizing public persona, that there's not going to be this deference to honest actions or mistakes or trying to do better. This is to me the core of this, is that by ignoring the environmental regulatory process, or let's say dismissing it or not taking it seriously, they're running a huge risk in terms of overall public opinion that eventually will filter out to political response.
Eric Roesch: I think that's an amazing point. And what I will illustrate to you is that when an oil company or a gas company wants to make a new pipeline, and this is not just in blue liberal states, this is everywhere, they know that there is a lot of very entrenched opposition, even if they're not opposed to that industry, they'll say, well, I don't want it in my backyard. What people don't realize, and I think I wrote this, maybe it was on Twitter, I'm not sure, but it was, when you're doing these types of projects, it is 50% knowing the rules, doing the work to get approval. And 50% of it is just PR. Oil companies go and they hire PR firms, they have community halls where they actually listen to people. I'm not saying, I am certainly not forgiving the oil industry, I am currently out of that industry and I'm glad to be. But they also say, well, if you've got a problem with something, it's not necessarily bribing people, it's just you tell people what we think the worst case scenario is. They've got a phone number that they can call. One of the great branding examples is there's the 811 call before you dig number. That's part of that whole idea that you have to put in the effort and money and time to get buy off. And that happens through not just steamrolling your way through saying, I need to develop this rocket tomorrow, I need to have this pipeline tomorrow. And like I said, there's plenty of PR snafus, but in general these projects happen because they spend money on PR, they spend time on it. Good or bad, that's what you have to do. And it seems to me that Musk has been able to get away with to an extent regardless not getting away with that. But I think in particular with the current climate and how he's portraying himself to the public, that I think that helps those foibles or things you didn't deal with before catching up to you all at once. That's my perception about it.
Casey Dreier: And again I opened this comparing it to when Jeff Bezos went into space, and to me at the end of the day a lot of the, to the extent that there was public anger, people who saw that, is more angry about the fact that there are billionaires. It was a symbol. Space to me has always just been such a powerful symbol. And when you see this broad reaction that we've seen to some degree with the environmental aspect of Starship launch or with Jeff Bezos going into space, it's always still acting as a symbol. It's pointing towards something. And I wonder if we're seeing that here in that if there was an aspect of this response, and I questioned this about too, because obviously with Elon Musk during COVID-19 I found some of his statements really irresponsible in terms of vaccinations and so forth. And it's hard for me as a SpaceX fan in a sense, to also hold into the fact that I personally don't necessarily like its leader. And I find myself hitting that motivated reasoning in terms of, do I channel my emotions to this directed ends when I see them do something I don't like? Do I get extra worked up about it? I was thinking about that, again because I was pretty seeing the visuals, what you were talking about, of the Starship launch and some of the initial response, this seems really bad. And I sent you this before we spoke today. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported, maybe it doesn't look as bad from an environmental perspective as perhaps we all thought initially. How do you think about your own thinking in this kind of, because you've had your very strong critiques of SpaceX, and do you feel you have to step back and try to remove your personal feelings from these broader policy activities? How do we approach this, I guess, for those of us who have these broad feelings?
Eric Roesch: No, I think it's a really fair question, because the nice thing about running a blog is that as long as I don't make up slander about people, I can write whatever I want. And so I've been very upfront with my personal feelings about it. It's helped some, it's certainly pushed certain people away. And I'm okay with it because I'm figuring this out as I go as well, being someone that has thousands and thousands of subscribers now, it's a weird position to be in because I have to be careful. And I've tried to be a little bit less cavalier with my own words recently, because I realize that with this broader audience, there comes some, if you want people to take you seriously, you have to talk differently, you have to be a little bit more neutral, and that's a learning process for me as well. And so, yeah, I think you really do have to distance yourself. I brought this up, people are like, you hate SpaceX. And one thing I've done is I've pointed out over and over and over again how incredible the Falcon 9 program has been, how rock solid it's been. How many astronauts have they ferried up and down now? And just there's never any drama with those launches. And so for me I just say, okay, look, I am a total nerd about some of these environmental rules. I know some civil construction stuff. That's what done for a living. I'd know some stuff about project management, but when it comes to the space stuff, even if I have an intuition that something might be obviously nonsense, I still defer. Because it's easy to say I'm not a rocket scientist. And so there's a little bit of that is just diffusing saying, I love to watch a rocket go up in the sky. I actually was born in central Florida, so I used to go to see the shuttle launch. I get that. And so I just say, well, I like the rockets for what they are. Here's my concerns, all that other stuff, I'll let you guys debate it. I'll read about it, I'll ask questions. But I don't know. And I think sometimes just being like, I'm frankly an idiot in this area is really actually helpful because it humbles yourself a little bit to the extent that I think it does maybe get some more trust that I'm not just some paid attack dog against SpaceX or whatever. I'm passionate about it and I think it shows through. But just diffusing saying, I don't know every single thing. There are certain YouTubers on the internet that just make anti Elon Musk videos, and I think they act like they know everything. And it's really off-putting to me as someone who really dislikes Elon Musk and thinks he's full of it a lot of the time. I guess I've just calibrated myself to be passionate about the things you know and admit when you're wrong and then just say, I honestly don't know about this other stuff. I've had to calibrate myself a little bit and I think that's been helpful. And to tell you the truth, the people I talk to via Twitter interactions or whatever, most of them are actually SpaceX fans who thought I was full of it at first. We had these honest discussions, and they may disagree, they may say, I think you're overreacting about this, that, and the other. But I have tons of people that are huge fans of the company that I have ongoing conversations with that are civil and interesting and fun. I feel a lot better about it than I did when I was first looking at this, because I was just so frustrated about some of the initial just ridiculousness in the submittal. I've tried to get more nuanced I guess as time goes on with this whole thing.
Casey Dreier: That's a good difference between a policy wonk and a partisan I suppose. There's that nuance. But think there's something that's an interesting process. And some of the way that you've characterized your experience really fascinates me too, because I've noticed that people like to just have a binary way of interpreting people either for or against a thing. And I think it's really important that if you're for a thing, you be able to critique it when they mess up or when something's wrong to make them better. And seeing this very, you can look through some of the comments on those Twitter posts that you've done or others, even just reporters talking about some of the environmental issues. We see a lot of just responses being, I think I quote one here, I wrote it down from AG, "Have people got nothing better to do than whine about progress." It's almost real. And this is my point of that, a lot of the argument is actually not necessarily arguing about Starship, but about the proper role of a regulatory environment in a society.
Eric Roesch: I think that's almost like, because I brought up the air pollution in Houston. It's almost like you're a victim of your own success, right? There's plenty more stuff to get fixed, but people don't remember why these things existed in the first place. And California's implementation, basically their state NEPA, CEQA, really just is basically a process that is designed to be hotwired to prevent actual progress. I really do believe that you'll see people using that law to prevent low income multifamily units from moving in. And you see that and you're like, well, this is what they're talking about. There's a lot of that. And that is very true. It's stopped rail, it's done all sorts of things that probably are not a good for society. So with that said, I think the real problem is, it sounds so corny, but I think we don't have a vision for this country, especially from an infrastructure standpoint. I have got my problems with the Green New Deal, but at least it was like, hey, this is what the future could look like. We need to have a multi administration, multi-party, multi-decade long project to revitalize our infrastructure. And some of that should involve overhauling regulatory statutes that are out of touch and out of date, and I get that. But people just pointing at, well, this law and it's tree huggers, whatever. No, I really think a lot of it is that we don't have this vision. Every two years when congressional elections come around, it's like we have to forget these long-term projects. I think I would just challenge people that just want to point at environmental rules, just me for how much I was critiquing this particular project. I agree with you on a lot of that stuff, and it's probably a factor. But I think just pointing at that is lazy and I don't think it's productive either.
Casey Dreier: You highlighted this earlier, but a lot of what I felt reading your prior work was also that we do have, and you said this earlier, we do have laws, and either they apply, and I wonder if this was a motivator, and I think this may also be what triggers, not maybe a loaded term, but just angers a lot of people is seeing that if you're wealthy enough you can buy your way out of them. And I think Elon Musk certainly seems to, I think, has acted in a variety of ways over the years that he does not think much of the regulatory structure that we've created in this country. And this you could read it as some Ayn Randian approach to, I know what I'm doing, I don't want the state slowing me down. But at the end of the day these are the rules and we're seeing a concerted effort to try to at minimum manipulate them to avoid the consequences for their own advantage. Is that an extent the core of this as well for you?
Eric Roesch: Yes, absolutely. I think it's the biggest problem. And I guess I would point at Dieselgate as EPA, that was the last time that EPA said, we will do something because this is so egregious where we could put one of the oldest and biggest car manufacturers in the world effectively out of business in North America. And they said, we're going to do that. It was a shock because really, I would say maybe the last few years of the George W. Bush administration, after we had jailed all those criminals from Enron and WorldCom, that there was this idea that we'd solved some of these big corporate fraud issues. And since then, I feel like we're so afraid to kill off a big company, to go after a very powerful person because it requires a lot of political willpower. And I think it's gotten worse and worse. For someone who graduated right before the Great Recession, you see bank execs, no one went to jail. I think going to that, I think Musk is almost just like this very comical version of what came from that, because he gets in trouble with the SEC, what he did with that tweeting, most other execs, especially from smaller companies would've been barred from serving in that role anymore.
Casey Dreier: This is for taking Tesla Private.
Eric Roesch: Private, yep.
Casey Dreier: When he didn't have the money secured.
Eric Roesch: But then afterwards he would just go and say, I don't respect them. He didn't comply with several requirements. And the issue is isn't that the laws exist or that, most people they comply with most laws because it's easier to do so. I think the unique thing about Musk, and this is the example I love to give, is that during the Trump administration, one of the only national labor relation board judgements was against Tesla for a tweet. And the punishment was a fine, I think it was some HR procedure had to be updated and Musk had to delete a single tweet. And the judgment came down, and I want to say like 2020 originally. But this whole investigation happened during the Trump administration, which was not very labor supportive, I would say. It was basically a tweet saying nothing's stopping them from joining a union, they can do whatever, but also it's better here. It was this egregious violation of the law. And so if you have a normal person including a CEO that maybe doesn't respect the rule of law, they would just delete the tweet because there's absolutely no harm to deleting that tweet. That infringing tweet by Elon Musk is still on his Twitter feed today. I don't think the regulatory system is prepared to deal with someone that doesn't, right? People talk about, you brought up Ayn Rand, but it's almost like he's got this level of a rationalist, there's no rational reason to not delete the tweet. People call him a mad man or whatever, but I don't want to say he's special in that way, but I think that's why he inspires so many people that really like him and dislike him, is that swashbuckler persona that, just delete the tweet. I think for me, that's what is so frustrating. I guess that would be the example I would use with him, why he maybe perhaps gets more idolation than maybe he deserves. But also at times he gets more critique than maybe he deserves if he was a normal boring CEO. It's just this very strong binary with him.
Casey Dreier: I've always thought this is one of the big long-term risks of privatization of space actually, is that you start to have individuals and all their idiosyncrasities and strange character quirks and so forth start to be associated with what had up until very recently been this stately government program that was publicly run and you would have names and faces to it, but not an individual embodiment of it. And with people like Musk and Jeff Bezos and others, you start to carry the baggage of a single person representing this era, with all of the attendant positives and negatives that come with it. And that type of Musk especially is really leaning into just being Twitter's character of the day over and over again. It has really been an interesting play for this. So that's in a sense one of my long-term fears, is that he personally is polarizing the broader public's attitude about SpaceX's success or not. One more just question before we close this up here. We've talked about SpaceX, we've talked about the FAA. Where do you see NASA's responsibility in this whole situation? Because you had senator or administrator Bill Nelson testifying before Congress, SpaceX will recover from this, they'll get going, they'll pick it up, and they're pouring billions of dollars into this program. Do you think that's a good, or what do you see as NASA's responsibility here?
Eric Roesch: Like I said, and this is the example where I don't know about space development. It seems nice that they have a backup lander. I guess that would be the high level response. And what I would say is, if you talk to NASA, one of the great tells is if you actually look at agencies for employees for how they donate money, to which party do regular employees donate to? That the most democratic and in fact, progressive leading agency, and this is above the EPA, is actually NASA. Most people don't realize that. And that's because I think the main reason is that NASA has this, every other employee has a PhD, and that demographic tends to line up with a certain type of social progressivism. And so I think given that, what's really interesting about NASA and I think where Bill Nelson fits in, is that there's also more towards the top. There's a very military minded leadership in NASA, people that come from the Air Force Academy, people who are astronauts, people who are generals, and that military crowd. And so I think if you talk to NASA employees, that seems to be one of the divides between how the agency itself views things like privatization, views things like what risks we can or cannot take. I think that's a really interesting dynamic, because I think leadership has been more in line with this militarized funded, however you want approach. But I think if you dig deeper into the actual people that work in NASA, and I certainly don't want to speak for everyone because I know there are people that aren't exactly like that. I think there's some weird cultural divides that are both demographic and then also just what your background is. Did you come from the military or did you come from a liberal arts school? How old are you? I think from NASA's standpoint, they make a lot of decisions, they do consider science always. They just make incredible publications. They're so technically sound. But I think my suspicion is that there's some doing things the old way, having this bureaucratic inertia, which maybe keeps things steady, but as VCs have diverted more from it, that there's a potential for more conflicts that will result in maybe projects not turning out as they would hope.
Casey Dreier: It's an agency of 17,000 civil servants and 60,000 contractors, but I guess, do you think they should impose more stringent environmental requirements on their contractors from the top? Do you think NASA has an ethical or just social responsibility here that they're not exercising? And maybe we're moving too far into the theoretically here, but do you see it mainly as a failure of FAA or do you think that NASA has a responsibility here too?
Eric Roesch: I think it's actually is more on NASA, because I think they've got the ability to do it. And the reason I bring up Kennedy Space Center is that if you talk to local biologists, if you talk to educators, look how many lawsuits get filed against Kennedy Space Center, almost none. Because they have a world-class environmental health and safety program. Their documentation is always up-to-date. You can go through their whole NEPA library going back decades. You can actually see every single project they made, every single decision they make, every single comment they make to a person complaining about, what if this rocket lands and kills a blue whale? Their culture at Kennedy Space Center, which is a huge part of NASA, it is perfect, for example, keeping SpaceX in line. So if you mandated, right? We're FAA, we haven't really figured this out yet. If they were to mandate, this needs to go through some channel where we know we've got a bureaucracy that's pretty good at what they do, you just don't see complaints about NASA because they run a tight ship and they go above and beyond on an EHS standpoint. And so I think that's certainly what I would suggest that you bring in, that I think NASA is more than equipped for it from a cultural standpoint, which is a huge part of complying with the laws, having the right culture. I would love to see them be a part of it. At the end of the day, the way the laws are set up, and because FAA does license commercial space ports, it is on them I guess, is the best way to put it.
Casey Dreier: Speaking of lawsuits, we have the very last question here. This happened right before we started recording. There is a new lawsuit now against the FAA by a coalition of groups, including the American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, suing the FAA for licensing the Starship launch. I know it's very early, neither of us are lawyers, but what's your first impressions of this lawsuit?
Eric Roesch: My first impressions, and I know several of the people that file them. Just so my biases are clear, I've kept out of any legal discussions they've had because I don't want to get sucked into attorney-client privilege, that kind of stuff. There's some really interesting stuff in there. A lot of it is the stuff we've seen before about beach access. That's really one of the ways they got standing to be able to sue they used the local save our RGV group, Rio Grande Valley. I would say the most important thing to watch, if you're watching one thing, if you're saying, what do I need to look for? This lawsuit was filed in the D.C. court and they used the justification, I don't know the exact justification, but basically they're like, well, we're suing the FAA. They're based out of dc. This is like a national policy because it affects Florida and Hawaii. That's the reason we didn't file suit in the Fifth Circuit in Texas. I would say if you're watching one thing for, on a high level, I think the case has some really interesting points, including what I brought up, that these impacts were not disclosed, therefore it was inadequate, the mitigations were inadequate. There's some interesting legal arguments in there. I am not a lawyer as you pointed out, thank God. But the one thing I would look for is that if that lawsuit remains in D.C., that would be a tell that they take it seriously because they think it's an interesting enough case, and I would not feel great, if I'm making just initial magic eight-ball guesses if it stays in D.C. given the makeup of that court, even though they tend to rule for the agencies in NEPA cases. But even then, if they take that, then I would be very concerned if I was a SpaceX fan for what the result would be, which is you have to start a new EIS, which would take years probably before they could launch again. If the court decides to send it to the Fifth Circuit, which I am guessing that is what FAA will request, I would feel pretty okay about my odds. Although knowing that even the Fifth Circuit may put some additional mitigations on it. That's my first take, is I would look, anything else just on a really high level, what venue is it being heard in, and not to worry about those details until we figured that part out.
Casey Dreier: Fifth Circuit being-
Eric Roesch: In Texas.
Casey Dreier: ... in Texas, and notably more conservative than some of the other circuit federal courts.
Eric Roesch: It has reputation, yes.
Casey Dreier: Eric Roesch, I want to thank you for joining us again on this really interesting, and again, just fascinating diversion into environmental policy. You can read Eric's work on ESG Hound on Substack. We'll include a link in the show notes. And Eric, if anything happens with this lawsuit, we'll be sure to ping you again for your insights and expertise in environmental policy as it comes to star base. Thank you for being here.
Eric Roesch: Anytime.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I enjoyed that conversation. That was awesome, Casey.
Casey Dreier: I learned a lot, so much going on in there. Eric was very generous with his time, and I recommend reading his blog, ESG Hound on Substack. It's a very fascinating and critical but important perspective on what SpaceX is doing down in Boca Chica.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: As much as we all want to go to space, we have time to think about these things, and we want to protect our planet as much as we can while we're doing this. So it's important.
Casey Dreier: One thing that space teaches us is that Earth is pretty damn nice compared to the rest of the cosmos out there. At least the accessible portions and preserving this little endemic spot of the cosmos is pretty important. And ironically it's what Elon Musk is all about too with Tesla and electric cars and climate change. It makes sense to think about that and just do things, I think the key word here is responsibly, and finding that balance between progress and conservation and respect for the environment we live in but still enabling this wild opportunities that we have before us. This is why we have policy. Where we have friction in societies, this is why we have policies to help deal with those.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And why we have people like you in our space policy team to help us shape policy for this in the future so that we can do this responsibly, send everyone to space, and also protect our world. Thanks, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Do what I can.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: All right, everyone, thanks for joining us for this month's Space Policy Edition. We'll be back again next month, and if you'd like, in the meantime you can sign up for our Space Advocate newsletter. How can they do that? Casey
Casey Dreier: planetary.org/spaceadvocate. Will take you to the newsletter and you can read every month my free hot take on space policy and highlights about important events that have happened in the past month.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: You won't want to miss the T on what's going on in space policy right now because it's intense.
Casey Dreier: Busy time.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Busy time. All right, Casey, I'll talk to you again next month.
Casey Dreier: We'll see you then.