NIMBY Laws Are Blocking Humanity's Future Among the Stars

The regulations that increase building costs on Earth will have the same effect in space.


It turns out that breaking free of Earth's gravity is a lot easier than breaking free of the regulatory state.

This summer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a 183-page report describing more than 75 actions that SpaceX has to take before launching Starship spacecraft from its launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas. That document is brief compared to the nearly 400-page environmental impact statement that the FAA issued regarding the same launchpad when SpaceX first acquired the site in 2012. Both reports were mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

That 1970 law requires that government agencies study the environmental impact of their actions, whether they are allowing construction of a new highway, permitting a new coal mine, or greenlighting a rocket launch. Over the years, the law has morphed into a progress-blocking behemoth. The average environmental impact statement—the most stringent level of review mandated by NEPA—takes 4.5 years to complete and runs around 661 pages. That's up from 2.2 years and 150 pages in the 1970s.

The opportunity for public input on what happens with private property allows NIMBYs and other obstructionists to bring projects to a screeching halt, even when regulators themselves would rather stay out of the way. Projects that survive the NEPA review process seldom emerge unscathed.

In SpaceX's case, many of the steps mandated for its Boca Chica site seem tenuously related to protecting the environment. For example, the company must prepare reports on the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, describing events that took place within the area potentially affected by its space launches. It will have to install five signs, in English and Spanish, outlining that history for the public.

SpaceX also will have to give $5,000 a year to both the Peregrine Fund, which works to protect endangered birds, and Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge's Adopt-an-Ocelot Program. The latter donation will help pay for special events to raise ocelot awareness.

Critics of NEPA argue that it does not protect the environment so much as the status quo, layering needless red tape on people trying to do new and exciting things. SpaceX must divert some of the time and energy it would have spent extending humanity's reach into the solar system to preparing reports on 19th century wars.

NEPA, which increases the cost of terrestrial road and rail projects, also stands in the way of journeys to space. The surliest bonds of Earth may be the ones forged by Congress.