Budget Hearings: DEP Hopes To Eliminate Permit Backlogs In Two Years
Acting DEP Secretary John Hanger told the House and Senate Appropriations Committees this week he hopes to eliminate permit backlogs in the agency by the end of his tenure (over the next two years) as the agency copes with its budget constraints.
Acting Secretary Hanger's written testimony is available online.
Here's a quick bullet summary of issues covered in the Senate and House Appropriations Committee hearings--
--Permit Backlogs: In response to questions about significant permit backlogs in the agency, Acting Secretary Hanger said he has directed staff to take steps over the next two years to eliminate the backlog. They were also proposing changes to erosion and sedimentation and stormwater management permits that should speed processing, although the proposals so far are opposed by environmental groups as a rollback of federal Clean Water Act requirements.
--Federal Stimulus: DEP is set to receive about $340 million in federal economic stimulus funding: $130 million for energy conservation, efficiency and alternative energy projects, $219 million for drinking water/wastewater system funding (administered by PennVEST), $6 million for cleaning up abandoned underground storage tanks and $1.8 million for conversion to cleaner diesel engines.
DEP has already prepared a list of some 500 energy and water infrastructure for funding, in particular those applications it already has that were worthy but not funded before. (See separate articles on a Guide To PA Stimulus Funding and EPA's Guidance on Green Infrastructure Projects.)
--Recycling: DEP has advised legislators of the urgent need to reauthorize the $2/ton recycling fee to support the program which is being hurt by a reduction of waste imports and a $15 million diversion of recycling funds to balance this year's budget.
--Green Building Code: DEP is drafting a Green Building Code as promised by Gov. Rendell in his budget address based on LEED and other green building standards.
--Nutrient Reduction: DEP said there is much more work to be done in reducing nutrients flowing to the Chesapeake Bay, highlighting significant progress already made by agriculture and wastewater plants. DEP also said there is a need to do more to make sure the nutrient credit trading program is a success.
--Conservation Districts: DEP praised the work of conservation districts, at the same time noting a $500,000 cut in district funding in their budget (or $1 million or 25 percent in the overall budget) was the result of eliminating "legislative adds" to the budget over the last few years.
--Alternative Energy/Climate Change: DEP said there is a need to take the next steps in expanding the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards and creating a carbon sequestration network to help deal with climate change issues as proposed in legislation by Rep. Vitali (D-Delaware) and Sen. Erickson (R-Delaware).
--Climate Change Plan: Sen. Mary Jo White (R-Venango), Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, expressed concerns about DEP meetings its April deadline for producing a cost-benefit study of potential strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions required by a new law passed last July. She also was concerned about the process for developing a climate plan being "fixed" without independent input by the Climate Change Advisory Committee established to help develop the plan.
Acting Secretary Hanger said he was committed to a rational process with honest input from the Committee, but noted the time frames for delivering the required studies under the law may slip a few weeks.
--Electric Rate Caps: With respect to the expiration of electric rate caps in 2010, DEP said the Governor supports phasing in rate increases when those increase go above 25 percent. Acting Secretary Hanger noted a recent report by the Public Utility Commission showed increases would be dramatically lower than originally thought due to declines in the cost of natural gas and coal. (See separate story on PUC.)
--Scrap Tires: DEP said there are now about 1.2 million scrap tires to be cleaned up across the state. As a result of efforts over the last 10 years 29 million tires have been cleaned up.
--Marcellus Shale: DEP has permission to hire 37 more people to speed processing of permits for Marcellus Shale natural gas wells and a new office in Williamsport. Process times have been reduced to an average of 28 days, even though the law allows 45 days.
DEP noted it has approved permits for 729 Marcellus Shale wells and 291 wells are now producing or are being drilled.
Sen. Corman (R-Centre), Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a proposed severance tax on natural gas production will be the last option considered by Senate Republicans and it will not be considered at all unless DEP straightens out the permit process for approving wells.
--Water Withdrawal Authority: DEP said there is a limited need to make changes in law to deal with issues raised by Marcellus Shale drilling, but one of which is to give DEP authority in the Ohio River Basin to approve water withdrawals related to drilling.
Acting Secretary Hanger said he and Gov. Rendell remain open to other options and steps that can be taken to fund environmental programs in his agency.
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