Friday, January 26, 2018

Gov. Wolf’s Statement Introducing Plan To Reduce Backlogs, Improve Oversight, Modernize DEP’s Permit Process

Gov. Tom Wolf gave this opening statement Friday at a press conference to introduce his plan to reduce DEP permit backlogs, improve oversight and modernize DEP’s permit processes--

Thank you all for being here. When I was running for Governor, I traveled around the state and met with citizens and businesses to hear what they wanted to see from their government.
I wanted to hear about the issues they saw so that when I became Governor, I was ready to tackle their challenges so that we could build a more responsive Government that Works for all.
One of the criticisms I heard was around permit backlogs and long wait times that people had encountered with DEP.
So, when I became Governor, I tasked DEP with looking at ways to reduce backlogs and wait times responsibly, so that we could meet the ambitious goals of the Permit Decision Guarantee, while still providing robust environmental protections for our citizens.
To get at the solution, we had to first identify the problem. And the problem was clear. For the last ten years, the Republican Legislature and previous administrations had cut the Department drastically, even as it has been given significant new responsibilities.
In the last ten years, even while the Marcellus Shale Industry was growing and beginning to create economic opportunity for the Commonwealth, DEP staff had been reduced by 43% across all programs.
This meant that a huge new piece of work was being placed on a significantly smaller number of staff.
The Legislature and previous administrations were attempting to cut the Department, while asking it to do more – and to do its work quicker. When I was in business, I never would have tried this kind of gimmick. Because simply put – it doesn’t work.
You cannot cut staff and then ask them to do twice the work in half the time.
You cannot cut your way to greater efficiency if all you’re cutting is the number of people that do the work. And you don’t have to be in business to know that.
So, previous administrations and the legislature put the Department in a no-win situation – and then heaped blame on the Department when they couldn’t make this impossible situation work.
We all know what this led to. Hundreds of days to get simple development permits. Thousands of permits sitting in backlogs. And permit reviewers with workloads they could never meet.  
This kind of thinking doesn’t make sense. Not for our industries. Not for our environment. And not for the people of Pennsylvania who have a constitutionally protected right to clean air and pure water.
When I became Governor, I knew we had to improve the permitting process. So, instead of forcing cuts or sanctions on them, as previous administrations had done, I listened to the Department about what their needs were. I asked how we could responsibly reduce permit time frames and backlogs without risking the protection of our environment.
And I tasked Secretary McDonnell and his staff with finding new strategies to cut down on wait times and backlogs – while still doing the critical work of protecting our environment.
And this approach has worked. Secretary McDonnell implemented a number of changes to the permit review process that he piloted in the Southwest Regional Office.
And the results in the Southwest Regional Office have been remarkable. Through a series of common sense steps, this pilot has helped DEP reduce wait times and backlogs.
We’ve seen a 220-day reduction in wait times for some common development permits. We’ve seen the number of overdue applications for well permits under review reduced from almost 300 to around 30.
And we’ve seen drastic reductions in the number of permits awaiting review.
DEP has made this reduction possible by:
-- Auditing the performance of the Southwest District Office, so it could get a sense of where the greatest needs are.
-- Rotating pending permits to regions with the capacity to review additional applications.
-- Reallocating positions within the Office of Oil and Gas Management.
-- Targeting new hires in key permit review areas.
-- And providing permit reviewers with additional training to standardize permit review processes.
While this pilot was ongoing, DEP has also worked to attack their Department wide backlog head on by devoting staff time and elevating permit reviews.
And since the summer of 2017, we’ve been able to achieve an over 6,000 permit reduction in the department wide backlog.
This progress has been unparalleled in DEP’s history, and has been felt by the industry. And we did it by applying a common-sense approach to the problem – rather than by punishing the very people we’re asking to do this critical work.
While we’ve seen drastic reductions in wait times and backlogs –we still have more work to do to meet the goals of the Permit Decision Guarantee.
So, in the coming year, we will be applying the lessons we’ve learned in our pilot program in the Southwest to the rest of the state, so that those incredibly results can be replicated statewide.
And we will also be taking a number of additional steps that will help us cut down on backlogs and wait times.  Among those steps are:
-- Expanding our Epermitting system to include a number of key development permits, reducing the time spent trading paper between DEP and industry.
-- Creating a new analytics program that helps managers track progress on open permit applications – allowing them to know how long permits have been in the system.
-- Releasing new review processes and registration practices for key development permits – so that we can clarify what is needed to complete an application and make it easier to apply for these permits.
-- And supporting common sense legislation that will bring the permit process in line with the industry it is actually engaged with, such as extending permit terms, allowing for well flexibility, and allowing multi-well pad permitting.
These steps will help us meet our broader goals by making it much easier to track permits as they move through the system, while making it much simpler to apply for, and use, these permits.
While these steps are incredible important, we also know that we have a staffing issue at the Department after years of misguided cuts that we must work to remedy.
That’s why, in this year’s budget I am proud to announce that I will be proposing, and fighting for, funding for an additional 35 positions at DEP, so that we can begin to rebuild the department after a decade of cuts.
This is a step that hasn’t been taken in a long time, and is frankly, long overdue. We must turn the page on a decade of funding cuts and staff losses that led to this problem. And that begins with bringing people back to do this incredibly important work.
We believe that, with these changes in place and through the expansion of the successful permitting pilot program, we can drastically reduce permit time frames and eliminate the backlogs.
And we believe that these changes will help DEP to meet the goals of the Permit Decision Guarantee by the end of 2018 – while keeping in place strong protections for our environment.
Our approach has been incredibly successful already. We’ve proven that, through targeted investment and better management practices, we can make the permitting process work better for everyone.
And we’ve taken a smart approach, rather than the misguided and backwards approach that has been taken in this town for decades.
We don’t need staff cuts at DEP. And we don’t need to attack the people who are actually doing the work.
We’ve tried all that – and it only led to giant backlogs and long wait times. What this process needs, and what we’ve proven works, are common sense solutions that actually help the Department work better.
We will continue to make progress and make this process more efficient for all involved.
I want to thank Secretary McDonnell for his leadership on this issue, and for his work in helping make DEP work smarter.
Through a stronger and more efficient permitting process, we can protect our God-given natural resources while strengthening the economy.
And now, to further discuss the progress we’ve made and where we are going, I’d like to introduce DEP Secretary Pat McDonnell.
Click Here to watch a video of the announcement.
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