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GAO: FCC Should Reconsider Exclusion of Large Satellite Constellations From Environmental Reviews

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The Federal Communications Commission should revisit its rules in conducting environmental impact assessments of satellites to include large constellations applying for licenses, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

GAO said in its report published Wednesday that despite scientific concerns about the environmental effects of satellites, big quantities of the communication systems are not required to undergo EIA if they have passed FCC’s casualty risk evaluations.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, a “categorical exclusion” can be used by federal agencies for proposed actions that the Council on Environmental Quality has reviewed and determined to not have significant environmental effects. The CEQ recommends that agencies periodically update their categorical exclusion conditions.

FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration weigh the merit of a license application against concerns about orbital debris, rocket launch emissions and sunlight reflection before requesting an EIA. Those that are exempt are categorically excluded.

GAO found that while the commission revises its categorical exclusion, it does not have a standard procedure for regular reviews and has never considered the rule’s applicability to license applications for large constellations of commercial satellites. 

The commission solidify its timeframe and review process, and identify factors to determine whether applications fall under extraordinary circumstances which warrant environmental impact assessments and statements, GAO said.