JETLaw paper by Ramon Ryan ’21 prompts legislation aimed at creating NEPA review for satellite launches

A paper by Ramon Ryan ’21 published in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law prompted two senators to ask the U.S. Government Accountability Office to review the Federal Communication Commission’s longstanding policy of excluding private satellites from environmental review.

Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked the FCC to examine the policy, which has been in effect since 1986, in an April 2 letter, according to a report in Space News. “Sen. Duckworth’s office called me and confirmed that my Note prompted the letter, and that they have started work on some draft legislation while they await the GAO’s response,” Ryan said.

Ryan’s paper, “The Fault in Our Stars: Challenging the FCC’s Treatment of Commercial Satellites as Categorically Excluded from Review under the National Environmental Policy Act,” identifies several issues raised by the FCC’s exemption of commercial satellites from environmental review. Ryan notes that commercial satellites pose serious threats both to astronomical research due to light pollution and to the environment due to the potential use of propellants containing hazardous chemicals. He concludes that these impacts clearly merit an assessment under the NEPA statute, which, he contends, requires the FCC to assess the environmental impact of commercial satellite projects before approving them for launch.

“The solution I propose in my Note is for the FCC to create a NEPA review process modeled after NASA’s,” Ryan said.

The need for environmental impact review has recently become pressing due to the potential for a tremendous increase in the number of commercial satellites in the sky. Approximately 1,500 satellites currently orbit the earth. SpaceX proposes to launch 12,000 additional satellites to complete its Starlink commercial network, and other commercial entities also plan to launch satellite networks.

“Although we are enthusiastic about the increased broadband access these satellite constellations might enable, astronomers are concerned that launching thousands of bright satellites into space, as the FCC has approved doing, will interfere with their scientific research,” Sens. Duckworth and Schatz state in their letter. “While a broad categorical exclusion may have been warranted 34 years ago, more than three decades later, scientists are expressing concern that…approving a private business to launch approximately 12,000 satellites into orbit warrants an [environmental assessment] or an [environmental impact statement] at a minimum.”

In addition to prompting Sens. Duckworth and Schatz to request a GAO review and start drafting legislation to update the NEPA review policy, Ryan’s paper has also provoked a discussion among astronomers about how best to work with commercial satellite companies to reduce or mitigate light pollution.

Ryan’s paper was reported on in January by Scientific American, Business Insider and Futurism.

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