February 29, 2024

Details about SpaceX’s proposed land swap deal with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission (TPWC) keep getting uglier. After an overwhelming majority voted against the land exchange, the decision was delayed to March. Recent reports, however, suggest that the acres in question were already set aside for preservation and that an oil billionaire in Texas is helping Elon Musk seal the deal.

TPWC is considering a land swap deal with SpaceX, acquiring around 477 acres near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Bahia Grande Unit, and in exchange giving SpaceX approximately 43 acres from Boca Chica State Park. The decision was scheduled for a vote on January 25, but has now been delayed to March after the agency received more than 1,039 comments against the land exchange and 263 that were for it, according to the Texas Standard.

Although it has not been approved yet, the deal is endorsed by Texas Parks and Wildlife Chairman Jeffery Hildebrand, who publicly declared that he was committed to seeing it through it during a meeting on January 24. Hilderbrand is a Houston-based billionaire, the founder of Hilcorp Energy—one of the largest oil and gas companies in the U.S.

The oil billionaire was appointed to his position as TPWC chair after donating $750,000 to Texas Governor Greg Abbott for his 2022 re-election campaign, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle. That same year, Hilderbrand donated a total of $1.97 million, mostly to Republican candidates and committees, making him the seventh largest political donor in Texas, the Austin American-Statesman reported at the time.

All that dough will get you places, and billionaires stick together at the top. With Hilderbrand in his position at TPWC, Musk has a friend at the agency, one that is supportive of SpaceX’s plans to expand its launchpad in Boca Chica as it prepares the most powerful rocket ever built for lift off.

The nearly 500 acres that’s being offered up in the land exchange deal is owned by Dallas and Nacogdoches-based Conservation Equity Management, a firm that sells environmental credits to private companies to offset their emissions or any other impact they may have on protected areas. SpaceX will likely buy the land from the firm and swap it for the 43 acres in South Texas, according to the San Antonio Express News. Before the land swap deal was proposed, others were hoping to bid on the 477 acres of coastal habitat for conservation efforts but now say they will likely not be able to match what SpaceX is offering, the local newspaper reported.

This is hardly a good deal for Texas; the big issue is that the 477 acres had already been slated for preservation, so if Hildebrand successfully completes the deal as he has promised, “Texans will see no net gain of conserved acres,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

Local environmentalists are also concerned that the land swap could pose a threat to conservation efforts in the area, with species listed under the Endangered Species Act occupying the surrounding wildlife habitat. “Federal and state public lands surrounding the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica are used by hundreds of thousands of individual birds of many different species throughout the year,” the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) told Gizmodo in an email earlier in January.

ABC joined the Center for Biological Diversity and three local non-profit groups in Texas to sue the Federal Aviation Administration after the Starship rocket’s explosive test flight in April 2023, claiming that the FAA rushed its approval of SpaceX’s expanded launch operations in Boca Chica without a proper environmental review. The inaugural liftoff of Starship sent chunks of debris thousands of feet across the South Texas landscape and sparked a fire in the nearby state park.

Earlier in 2022, an investigation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that populations of snowy and piping plovers—two shorebird species—dropped drastically near the SpaceX site. The FWS also pointed to possible negative environmental impacts on multiple sea turtle species, as well as other shorebirds, like red knots, should SpaceX expand its launch site.

TPWD claims that the land exchange deal will allow it “to expand its management and protection of Texas’ natural resources and enhance recreational opportunity while allowing necessary expansion of SpaceX’s facilities and operations in Texas,” the agency told Gizmodo in an email in January.

In the lead-up to the next meeting on March 27 to discuss the land swap deal, Hilderbrand seems confident that the decision will pass. “I am committed to moving this process forward and completing the transaction,” he said during a public meeting on January 24. Of course he is.

Want to know more about Elon Musk’s space venture? Check out our full coverage of SpaceX’s Starship megarocket and the SpaceX Starlink internet satellite megaconstellation. And for more spaceflight in your life, follow us on X (formerly Twitter) and bookmark Gizmodo’s dedicated Spaceflight page.