Projects That Threaten Species to Get EPA Help With Permitting

By Amena H. Saiyid

A new EPA office will try to keep federal environmental reviews from needlessly slowing down permitting for energy, manufacturing, and infrastructure projects that threaten endangered species, an agency official said April 26.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to announce as early as April 27 that its new permitting office, which will be housed at the EPA’s Office of Policy, will be charged with moving through permitting that gets bogged down by environmental reviews as well as interagency discussions about protecting endangered species, among other factors.

The new office will take over national environmental reviews that were handled by the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and interagency consultations on permits by relevant program offices, such as the Office of Water, the agency official said.

The agency’s move builds on President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan to streamline permitting decisions among various federal agencies.

The new permitting office will follow through on the EPA’s goal to issue environmental permits within six months for major energy, transportation, manufacturing, and infrastructure projects.

Pruitt issued a memo along with a key attachment, spelling out when the agency’s assistant administrator for water and other division heads will determine whether the EPA needs to object to or agree with a Clean Water Act permit that the Army Corps of Engineers issues for building major mining, pipeline crossing, and infrastructure projects. The Corps is authorized under the statute to issue dredge-and-fill permits under EPA oversight.

Permits issued under the Clean Water Act, Federal Insecticide Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or any other environmental laws for major pipeline, energy generation, or construction projects, can trigger an Endangered Species Act Section 7 requirement for the EPA to consult, as needed, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to minimize harm to endangered birds, fish, plants, and animals.

The EPA’s internal review of Clean Water Act permits revealed that interagency consultations over threats to endangered species were holding up the process, Henry Darwin, EPA chief of operations, told Bloomberg Environment in an interview in March.

Darwin is spearheading an agencywide effort to review, identify, and address problems that are slowing down the EPA’s permitting programs.

The Trump administration also worries about the speed of broader reviews of environmental impact required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

A senior water adviser under the Obama EPA, Ellen Gilinsky, sees EPA’s action as a move toward politicizing permitting decisions.

The Office of Policy within the administrator’s office until now has no staff or experience coordinating permitting reviews because they were coordinated out of the enforcement office or through appropriate offices like water or air.

“This move appears to be politicizing permitting decisions by moving them into the administrators office and out of the program offices where there are technical experts who know the rules and the science,” Gilinsky told Bloomberg Environment.

—With assistance from Alan Kovski.