Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk is facing serious criticism for plans to power his other major business venture, SpaceX, with fossil gas.
“Musk’s SpaceX aims to use a site in South Texas to launch rockets to carry people and cargo to the moon and Mars,” Bloomberg reports, citing company documents filed with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. “To do that, the company intends to drill gas wells to make its own fuel and electricity.”
An FAA spokesperson said the document appears to be an unfinished draft of an environmental review. The final version will eventually be posted to the agency’s website and subject to public comment.
But the intent is pretty clear. “The SpaceX site in Texas will be supplied by at least five nearby gas wells, along with two gas-fired power plants,” Bloomberg writes. “Purified gas from the wells will be pumped into refrigeration equipment that turns it into liquid methane, the document shows. The methane can be combined with liquid oxygen and other compounds to make rocket fuel.”
The plan carries some delicious irony for fossil companies. “Musk has long derided the oil industry, touting renewable energy and electric vehicles as the keys to averting a climate catastrophe,” the news agency notes. “But the FAA document and SpaceX’s comments to Texas regulators show how, at least in the short term, some of his goals will depend on plans for fossil fuel extraction that are already drawing criticism from environmental groups.”
The news lands less than two weeks after Musk offered up US$100 million of his growing fortune—recently estimated at $201 billion—for the “best” carbon capture technology anyone can come up with. “The tech billionaire, who briefly overtook Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest man this month, tweeted the announcement and promised more details next week,” The Independent wrote.
“In response, several of Mr. Musk’s followers who shared the tweet suggested a solution—plant more trees.”
The Bloomberg report has details on the geological, legal, and technological challenges SpaceX faces at the Texas site, noting that a dozen environmental groups are already raising flags. “The rocket launch site has gone far beyond the scope of its original permit, and the company’s plans threaten an environmentally sensitive wildlife corridor along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the coalition.”
American Bird Conservancy Vice President EJ Williams said at least three explosions at the site last year had “directly impacted designated critical habitat used by federally listed and other declining species.” And David Newstead, director of bird conservation projects for the Corpus Christi, TX-based Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, raised concern about impacts in the surrounding area.
“More traffic on the highway leading to the launch site has dramatically increased the number of animals killed by vehicles, and road closures for rocket launches have prevented biologists from studying threatened migratory bird species that nest nearby,” Bloomberg writes, citing Newstead. “The FAA originally permitted SpaceX for 12 launches a year and 180 hours of road closures, but Newstead said his group documented more than 1,100 hours of highway closures last year.”