Policy: Concerns with Senate Bill 692

PEC and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) jointly sent the following letter to Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on June 7, 2022:

Dear Senators:

We write to share our concerns with Senate Bill 692 (P.N. 771), which substantially revises erosion & sedimentation permitting for the oil and gas industry.

Our concerns include the following:

    • The legislation sets deadlines for permitting decisions, but includes language that may put the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) or County Conservation Districts at a disadvantage toward meeting those deadlines. For example, the definition of “administratively complete” [page 1, starting at line 11] states that a permit application is complete “notwithstanding whether the information, maps and other documents would be sufficient to justify issuance of the permit.” This issue is compounded in Section 3(b)(3) of the legislation, which states that the need for applicants to correct technically deficiencies does not alter the permit decision timeframe [page 3, lines 20-22]. To run the clock on permitting decisions before all necessary information is provided is not appropriate, particularly when Conservation Districts have testified that a significant percentage of permit applications are submitted without necessary information, and that consultants average longer than a month to respond to technical deficiencies.
    • The legislation changes the threshold for when an erosion & sedimentation permit would be required by limiting the metric of five acres of earth disturbance to only those situations where five or more acres are disturbed “at any one time” [page 2, line 22]. This limitation ignores cumulative impacts and would allow for possible gaming of permitting requirements by sanctioning site activity before a permit is even obtained.
    • The legislation sets permitting fees at $500 (plus an additional $100 for each acre disturbed) and does not allow the Environmental Quality Board to adjust those fees for at least 3 years [Section 5 of the bill]. It is not clear if this amount is remotely sufficient for proper agency review.

It would seem the more appropriate course of action to address permitting inefficiencies is to: (1) require that permit applications contain all necessary information; (2) provide reviewing agencies with sufficient resources to adequately make those decisions; and (3) hold the agencies responsible for the efficiency and enforceability of those decisions, provided (1) and (2) are met. If the Commonwealth wants a responsive oversight program, it should do so through the lens of sufficiently investing in that program while also measuring accountability.

We strongly support the concept of deploying an online, publicly accessible system for all permits; both for the benefit of the public and for the regulated community. That concept is considered in part in this legislation, but not actually provided for. With the surplus of state and federal funding available in this budget cycle, and with an eye toward future federal funding requirements, now is the time to make that investment. Improving DEP’s information technology system for internal management and public reporting is essential to meeting the responsiveness goals envisioned in this legislation. It’s also sound policy.

We urge members to oppose this legislation unless these issues are addressed.

Thank you for your consideration.

John Walliser
SVP, Legal & Government Affairs
Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Adam Peltz
Senior Attorney, Energy
Environmental Defense Fund