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Space News' Viasat asks FCC to halt Starlink launches while it seeks court ruling says:

Viasat formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to stay an April 27 license modification that allows SpaceX to continue building out the broadband constellation, which already numbers more than 1,600 satellites.

Starlink surpassed the 1,584 satellites permitted under its previous license in 550-kilometer orbits soon after launching a fresh batch of 52 satellites May 15. SpaceX is slated to launch 60 more May 26.

Viasat’s bid to stop or at least slow Starlink’s expansion rests on convincing a federal appeals court that the FCC was legally obligated to assess the megaconstellation’s environmental impact before approving SpaceX’s request to more than double the number of satellites it intends to operate from 550 kilometers.

and later

Carlsbad, California-based Viasat, which provides broadband services from geostationary orbit (GEO), had petitioned the FCC to conduct an environmental review before granting the license modification as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which currently categorically exempts satellite systems, but says this did not happen despite megaconstellations bringing new considerations for regulators.

The FCC by and large rejected the requests when it approved the license modification, although it did urge SpaceX to continue to work closely with astronomers to mitigate the brightness of its satellites. The FCC offered several reasons for not performing an environmental assessment, from questioning whether light pollution is covered by NEPA to noting that the Federal Aviation Administration does its own environmental reviews as part of the launch licensing process.

Viasat said in a May 21 filing to the FCC that NEPA required it to at least consider environmental harms before granting SpaceX’s application, such as orbital debris, light pollution and the effect disintegrating satellites could have on the atmosphere.

Question: Does NEPA indeed currently categorically exempt satellite systems? If so, can there be any legal basis to Viasat's request in its "May 21 filing to the FCC that NEPA required it to at least consider environmental harms before granting SpaceX’s application, such as... light pollution..."?

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This answer is mainly based on the publication of Ramon Ryan The Fault in Our Stars: Challenging the FCC’s Treatment of Commercial Satellites as Categorically Excluded from Review Under the National Environmental Policy Act. All the quotes are from this document.

It should be noted first that NEPA has an umbrella goal of protecting environment and its broad regulations impact the activities of all federal agencies. However, it also

allows for an agency to specify which regulatory activities it considers excluded from environmental review

For our particular case, strictly speaking it is NOT NEPA that gave satellites an exclusion. In fact, the legality of the exclusion PROCESS is given by a guideline given of the CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality)

To assist federal agencies in the implementation of NEPA, Congress created a Council on Environmental Quality (“Council”) to operate out of the Executive Office of the President. The Council instructed agencies that before implementing “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” agencies need to either complete an Environmental Assessment (EA), complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), or classify the action as categorically excluded from NEPA review.

The FCC applies the CEQ guidelines in the following way:

Despite its [the FCC interpretation of NEPA] relatively recent update, the [FCC’s] regulation remains fairly sweeping in scope, stating that “Commission actions . . . are deemed individually and cumulatively to have no significant effect on the quality of the human environment and are categorically excluded from environmental processing.” The regulation then goes on to specify three exceptions that are not categorically excluded from environmental review

To paraphrase, the FCC simply promulgated that, except 3 specific areas, ALL other FCC’s activities fall within the category of “Categorical Exclusion”. I think it is this aspect of the FCC’s interpretation of NEPA that is now under scrutiny by legal scholars.

From the latest news, Viasat has submitted its petition against FCC to the District Court of Columbia, with case n° 21-1125. Of course, we can also debate on Viasat's motivation, but it is off-topic here. What is curious is that none of the stakehoders in AStronomy has joined Viasat's petition (or petition themselves), on the basis of Ryan's line of arguments.

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