In a newly issued Biological Opinion, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has reversed its 2012 finding that the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) streamlined nationwide permitting program could result in jeopardy under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Nationwide permits govern actions that have limited environmental impacts, and streamlining is intended to expedite the permitting process for those actions. In contrast, activities the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) determines may discharge dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, but do not qualify for coverage under a nationwide permit, must be authorized under individual 404 permits.
NMFS emphasized that though streamlining of nationwide permits is now considered acceptable under the ESA, new measures promulgated by the Corps will ensure species are protected. These measures include amending notification requirements, holding semi-annual staff meetings, and improving tracking of the permits’ authorized activities. The Corps also plans to issue guidance specifying that regulated entities must report injuries or death of certain marine species listed under the ESA.
The Corps’ new rules will require pre-construction notifications for activities in jurisdictional waters where impervious surface materials will be used and where the waters are inhabited by listed species or are designated critical habitat under the species law. The Corps also plans to modify a nationwide permit covering utility lines and authorization of some oil and gas infrastructure. The oil and gas industry is concerned that the Biological Opinion might result in limitations on the permit, creating an impasse on new energy infrastructure.