Will Environmental Regulations Stop SpaceX?

The lawsuit could be a bellwether of how federal agencies must handle a burgeoning private space industry.


A federal court is mulling whether Elon Musk's SpaceX should have to complete time-consuming and expensive environmental reviews of private space launches for its satellite-beamed internet service, Starlink.

The legal battle, which began in December 2020 and now awaits a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, was initiated by ViaSat, a satellite communications company and SpaceX competitor. If the courts side with ViaSat, the case could pile huge new regulatory costs on private space flights and satellite launches, based on regulations that are decidedly earthbound.

At issue is the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), a Nixon-era law that requires federal agencies to conduct extensive environmental reviews before granting approval for new projects. Although it was obviously intended to regulate the construction of projects such as roads and pipelines, NEPA contains no language limiting its geographic scope. ViaSat contends that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should have had to complete a NEPA review before giving Starlink permission to operate in Earth's orbit.

What does that have to do with the environment of the United States? Not much.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for regulating emissions from SpaceX launches, did complete NEPA reviews before granting permission to Starlink. The FCC's jurisdiction is limited to the signals sent and received by what Starlink says will one day be a 4,000-satellite fleet capable of beaming high-speed internet to most of the planet.

In the lawsuit, ViaSat and several environmental groups essentially are asking federal courts to force the FCC to engage in a duplicative review process. The only actual environmental threat they cite is the potential for Starlink satellites to contribute to "light pollution."

This is, of course, ridiculous. "The selective use of NEPA challenges shows how broadly worded statutes and regulations are susceptible to weaponization by private actors whose concerns may be driven more by commercial competition than by environmental protection," says Michael Ellis, a visiting fellow at the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Still, the lawsuit could be a bellwether of how federal agencies must handle a burgeoning private space industry. "Are such projects to flourish, setting in train a virtuous cycle of growing wealth, fresh discovery, greater abundance, and new possibilities?" ask attorneys for TechFreedom, a nonprofit organization that supports innovation free from government control, in an amicus brief urging the D.C. Circuit to reject ViaSat's claims. "Or are they to starve in their cradles, victims of small-mindedness, petty squabbling, and a status-quo bias?"

NEXT: Brickbat: It All Adds Up

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  1. SpaceX good. NASA (Boeing) bad.

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  2. Move StarBase 1 mile south. Problem solved.

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  3. There's an old EPA-directed adage that probably could be applied to bureaucrats as well - shoot, shovel, and shut up. Who's going to notice a few dozen or a few hundred missing bureaucrats?

  4. Is ViaSat secretly taking money from space-faring other nations, to push for this? Will our bureaucrats hand this economic opportunity, lock, stock, and barrel, over to those other space-faring other nations? Sounds like corruption and treason to me!

    1. To really don’t understand what “competitors” means?

      1. Tu-Tu-To really don’t understand what “ethics” means?

        If to don't want tour competitor you go running and crying you Government Almighty you shut to down ("justified" by bullshit reasons having you do with Government Almighty laying claim you regulating space, which does NOT belong you our Government Almighty, for example), then don't to that you the next tutu!

        ("Golden rule". Look it up.)

        1. You asked whether "ViaSat is secretly taking money from space-faring other nations".

          I answered your question: no, they are not. They are simply engaging in rent seeking.

          Your response indicates that you at least have a vague understanding of the concept of "rent seeking". So maybe next time, you can avoid asking such stupid questions.

          1. "I answered your question: no, they are not."

            And how do you know this? Citation please! Cites from your mind-reading app running on your tinfoil hat do NOT count!

            (HIDDEN things can be DEEPLY hidden, especially when they involve selfish motives!)

  5. SpaceX China won’t have these problems.

  6. And this is the reason Musk needs to be successful. Get us off this rock and away from these lawfaring assholes.

    I noticed today that Tesla just got hit with a lawsuit for harassment. The lawyers and their knives are out in force.

    1. Man! An African American just can't catch a break.

    2. the reach of the lawfaring dweebs extends to beyond Pluto.

  7. A preview of the fun Build Back Better is going to have with Liberal environmental crazies.

  8. Should it be noted that viasat is owned by Northrop Grumman, the company that got bitch slapped in court by space x when Northrop destroyed a multi billion dollar satelite and tried to blame SpaceX

    1. No need to be so roundabout. Viasat is a direct competitor to SpaceX for space internet. Starlink will cut out a lot of Viasat's income.

  9. You could also have written this story about environmental regulation getting in the way of lithium and magnet mining, the minerals for which are used in electric cars and are far more rare than they need to be because of environmental regulation and progressives.

    "Former U.S. President Donald Trump and the mining industry “pushed the narrative that we need to mine everywhere and undercut environmental safeguards in order to build more batteries,” said Drew McConville of The Wilderness Society, a conservation group. “We have confidence that the Biden administration is going to see through that false narrative.”

    In both the case of electric cars and Starlink, what we're really pushing up against is socialism and progressive ideology. In the case of mining for lithium and magnets, we're up against progressive ideology that's really about forcing lower income people to use mass transit or make due with less transportation--while the progressives try to price fossil fuels off the market. It's the same old forced sacrifice routine at the heart of every progressive issue.

    In the case of Starlink, we're talking about SpaceX getting in the way of the progressives' unnecessary socialist plan to hardwire rural America for broadband at taxpayer expense--just like the socialists did with electricity and telephone under FDR's New Deal. Starlink is wiring all of North America without a penny from the taxpayers, and progressives can't tolerate that. It's hard enough for socialists to find real problems to solve, and the last thing they want is for someone else to come along and solve it without any help from the government.

  10. Not once they get to Mars.

    1. Getting to a station in orbit should be enough to break free of Earth-bound governments, though a base on the moon, Mars, or an asteroid would provide some advantages.

    2. Gave me an idea, which I freely donate to Elon Musk:

      Form a new company, Space-XXX, based in some Caribbean country which likes money and likes to thumb its nose at the US. They hire Space-X to launch a warehouse.

      Space-XXX builds the satellites and hires Space-X to launch them to the orbital warehouse. They emit no light pollution from inside this warehouse.

      Space-XXX builds launchers, third stages if you will, hiring Space-X to launch these to the warehouse also. They too emit no light, being inside the warehouse.

      Space-XXX launches its satellites from its warehouse using its boosters. The US EPA does not apply.

  11. I'm sure there's another country that would be happy to host SpaceX launches.

  12. Nobody seems to notice or care about the hypocrisy that Richard Branson and Elon Musk have emitted 10,000+ times more carbon than other humans and have become billionaires from government subsidies, but are both advocating dramatic cuts in worldwide carbon emissions (except for their massive carbon emitting luxury space rides for millionaire's recreation).

    1. Just for the record, SpaceX has saved the taxpayers huge amounts of money by developing and running a private industry heavy rocket program.

      Last I checked, SpaceX's charges about $150 million a launch. NASA's version will cost at least $2 billion a launch for the same payload. Meanwhile, SpaceX's rockets didn't cost the taxpayers a thing to develop, where NASA's version has already cost the taxpayers $20 billion. NASA started before Musk and still hasn't even done a test flight!

      "With a maximum cadence of one launch per year, the SLS rocket is expected to cost more than $2 billion per flight, and that is on top of the $20 billion NASA has already spent developing the vehicle and its ground systems."

      The government hates SpaceX because SpaceX embarrasses the government with its success and its cost to taxpayers. Anyway, every time the government uses SpaceX to launch a rocket, Musk saves the taxpayers $1.85 billion ($2 billion minus $150 million).

      I know there are a lot of libertarians who look at this and think of it in terms of crony capitalism--here's a guy getting rich off of government contracts. Government contracts are only part of their launch business--and Musk is saving the taxpayers tons of money with that. The way I see it is that Musk is putting the Anarcho-Capitalist dream into action: he's replacing the government with private contractors. That's what we libertarian capitalists want!

      P.S. Meanwhile, Musk is blanketing North America with broadband from space at no cost to the taxpayer whatsoever, where the Democrats' infrastructure bill spends $65 billion in the taxpayers' money to wire rural America for broadband. Again, Musk seems to be the libertarian capitalist alternative to government spending. He's saving us money by taking government contracts, in some areas, and he's obviating the need for taxpayer spending completely in other areas.

      1. Just FYI in a typical year about half the launch manifest for SpaceX is for privately funded satellites. If SpaceX Starlink satellites are included then the vast majority of such launches are privately funded.

        Also a bit of irony is that a ViaSat 3 series satellite is scheduled to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket around April of 2022. Sue them, but in the mean time save money by launching on their rockets.

        Lastly, if the FCC did not require an environmental review of ViaSats own satellites, then they undercut their own case.

        1. ViaSat launched some of their existing satellites from French Guiana.

      2. WHY are gummit even invoved in things like space travel, rockets, oradband, etc?

        Next thing ya know, thye'll be running things like railroads, cruise ship lines, car manufacturers, seaports.....

        WHERE are anyof these tings amongst the short and specificlist of things FedGov are assigned to manage? I can't find any of thos things in that list.

  13. "SpaceX must be an "environmental" witch", Says the witch-hunting mob.

  14. If the suit succeeds, there will be a pause of about a year while the assembly/launch site in the Philippines is fast-tracked.

    Then Musk will sue to have all NASA payloads launched from the US, thus spiking all of those French Guyana launches.

  15. (FCC) should have had to complete a NEPA review before giving Starlink permission to operate in Earth's orbit.

    and precisely WHAT do FCC have to do with air and l\or light "pollutiion"?

    Stay in your lanes, minions.

    I think the ViaSat guys or whoever is suing, should bear the burden of establishing beyond reasonable doubt their claims about pollution. Sounds like a bunch of wet-nappie cry babes to me. Trying to bury theyr competition. Smack em hard, and make em pay the legal costs.

    Must as I despise Musk on multiple levels, this is ridiculous. Talk about unfair attempts to take out the cmpetitioin cause they can't out-operate them. Reminds me of when Guido an da Boiz would come round and "make some minor rejustments".

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