Citizens working with an environmental group are warning that proposals touted by members of the state House GOP caucus as a boon to economic growth would turn the state into a “welcome wagon” for oil and gas companies.
In a letter to the Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf dated Monday, the advocacy group Environmental Integrity Project outlined its opposition to two pieces of legislation that are part of Energize PA, a package of legislation described as to promote economic growth by boosting the oil and gas and related industries. The legislation is up for consideration in the House this week.
The first bill addressed in EIP’s letter, known as House Bill 1106, would create a 30-day deadline for the state Department of Environmental Protection to decide on applications for environmental permits and similar approvals and deem any application not decided in that window automatically granted.
The other, HB 1107, would take away authority to review permit applications from DEP officials and instead establish a five-member commission of political appointees to review the applications.. The commission members would need only be at least 25 years old and include two engineers.
The bills would change processes not only for oil and gas facilities but the broad spectrum of activities running the gamut from mining to waste disposal.
“This is reckless lawmaking, but not surprising,” said EIP’s letter, signed by nearly 300 people from throughout the state. “Together, these bills represent the culmination of a long-game playbook written by the oil and gas industry that has now been plopped into the lap of malleable state legislators.”
EIP’s letter also questioned bill supporters’ premise that there’s a “backlog” of environmental permit applications. It pointed to cuts to the DEP budget and staff – nearly a quarter each since 2007, coinciding with the shale gas boom – and said the proposals would put the public at risk by further gutting the agency.
Rep. Tim O’Neal, a South Strabane Township Republican and lead sponsor of the proposal for the commission, called EIP’s characterization of his proposal “absolutely not true.”
“There are a number of stakeholders who have worked on this – everything from construction and manufacturing to farming and the natural gas industry have all had input and advised on the forming of this legislation,” he added.
The freshman lawmaker said it seems like DEP officials have had trouble “for at least a decade” in their duty to evaluate permit applications with another major role, field enforcement work.
He said his proposal, which would allow the DEP to focus on enforcement, is “certainly thinking out of the box, but it’s a common-sense approach that is stabilizing the permitting sit while addressing and improving the environmental sit with enforcement and regulation.”
Not everyone agrees. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO – which includes unions representing the building trades – was neutral on another bill, HB 1100, the House advanced last week. That one would dole out tax credits to those who use methane to make fertilizer and petrochemicals, president Rick Bloomingdale said.
But Bloomingdale said his group opposes Bills 1106 and 1107 as they’re written.
“All they need to do is hire more people,” Bloomingdale said. “You don’t need a bill to do that, you just need an appropriation.”
SEIU Local 668, which represents thousands of state employees, said in an email it opposes both bills for similar reasons. It said the 30-day time limit bill “imposes unnecessary and unrealistic guidelines for DEP employees who are already understaffed and overworked.”
DEP spokesman Neil Shader said in an email the “bills create more problems than they solve, and would result in slower permitting time and more uncertainty for business.”
Wolf, a Democrat, has proposed funding infrastructure programs through a natural gas severance tax. His spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said the governor “has concerns” about the GOP’s proposals, including “attempts to dismantle DEP’s oversight authority and weaken environmental protection, and the lack of a revenue source for the new authorities and funding.”
“Gov. Wolf believes the Legislature should first ensure the oil and gas industry is paying its fair share before providing more taxpayer-funded incentives to the industry,” Abbott wrote in an email.