Wednesday, March 22, 2023

DEP Offers 10 Point Plan To Improve Permit Reviews; Climate/Energy Work Group Co-Chairs Announced; Work Group Formed To Prevent New Oil & Gas Well Abandonments

On March 22, DEP presented a 10 point plan for improving DEP permit reviews to the
Senate Appropriations Committee as part of Acting Secretary Richard Negrin’s presentation on DEP’s FY 2023-24 budget request.

The Plan is aimed at concerns many legislators have about speeding up the permit review process and a DEP objective to improve the quality of permit applications submitted to the agency.  

Only 25% of the over 40,000 permit applications DEP received in 2022, for example, came in the door complete.

Other takeaways from the hearing include--

-- Climate/Energy Work Group: The Governor will soon announce a Work Group on Climate and Clean Energy chaired by Mike Dunleavy, who recently retired from IBEW Local 5 Pittsburgh and Jackson Morris, who is the eastern regional director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

-- Hydrogen Hubs: DEP's role in the development of any new hydrogen hubs in the state is to help see that "we're getting the benefits, from a climate perspective, that we should be getting" from these proposals, noting no one has been able to point yet to a hydrogen hub that is functioning well.

-- Critical Role Of Energy Storage: One of the keys to a well-functioning electric grid in the future will be deploying energy storage technologies to achieve the Governor's goals of reliable, affordable, clean energy.

-- Preventing New Conventional Oil & Gas Well Abandonments: DEP has formed a work group to prevent the abandonment of more conventional oil and gas wells.

-- Road Dumping Conventional Oil & Gas Wastewater Illegal.  The road dumping of conventional oil and gas wastewater remains illegal in Pennsylvania.

Overall, Acting Secretary Negrin said he was "content," but "not satisfied" with the proposed budget for DEP.

Click Here for a copy of DEP’s Budget Testimony.

Here are some more details-- 

10 Point Plan For Improving Permit Review Efficiency

Acting Secretary Negrin distributed a 10 Point Plan For Improving Permit Review Efficiency to members of the Committee that included--

1. Staffing: 30 new positions for FY 23-24 to enhance the permitting process.  DEP will continue to evaluate staffing needs to meet a goal of improving permit review times.

2. Rapid Response Team: Small, select team of experienced, highly-qualified permitting specialists to work on agreed upon, identified projects.  He called them his “Navy  Seals Of Permitting”

3. Office of Environmental Excellence & Annual Report: Use new operations system and Key Performance Indicators to drive operational goals.  Apply private-sector management principles to quarterly operations review and make the data available to the public.  Issue Annual Report that shows year over year progress.

4. Fast Track: Researching options for expedited permitting track for selected projects that meet certain criteria.

5. Early Engagement And PACT (Pre-Application Consultation Tool): Formalize pre-application meeting process to better inform potential applicants of processes and needed permits as well as drive down permit application deficiencies.

6. Streamlining Reviews: Engage outside permit expertise to review permit forms and processes to identify areas of improvement with a focus on user experience.

7. Backlog Reduction Plan: Explore and create mechanisms to reduce annual backlog of permit reviews.

8. Technology Upgrade: Update systems to modernize consolidate permit review programs and enhance security.

9. Enhanced Training for Staff: Ensure staff are trained on latest technology and programs to ensure efficiency.

10. External Plan for Ongoing Stakeholder Engagement: Work with the Governor’s Office of Transformation & Opportunity and legislature to engage stakeholders and identify opportunities for improvement and continuous learning.

“I want a chance to fix this first [before considering options like third-party permit reviews].  I think it [the plan] makes sense,” said Acting Secretary Negrin. 

“I've heard those nightmare stories. I think we talked about a permit that took four years, a permit that took seven years. 

“That should never happen. That team should be able to dive in way before when we start to see delays and we're tracking, we're putting those numbers up to prevent that.

“If I don't have the resources to do some of that internally, then I think it's time to have a conversation about what's the best way to do that. 

“I'm open to that conversation going forward, but I want a chance to fix this first.”

Only 25% Of Permit Applications Come To DEP Complete

In response to a question by Sen. Devlin Robinson (R-Allegheny) on how many DEP permit applications are eligible for the permit Decision Guarantee Program, Acting DEP Deputy for Field Operations Ramez Ziadeh said of the 40,018 permit applications DEP received in 2022, only 9,088 of those applications-- 25% or so-- were submitted are complete and eligible for the Permit Decision Guarantee Program.  “That’s a big problem,” he said.

Acting Secretary Negrin followed up by saying, “But the point that I think Ramez just made is an incredibly important one. If you look at our permit plan, that early engagement piece needs to be specifically designed. 

“The permit folks we have that do that piece well is incredibly subjective. There's no formalized process around that. 

“So I want to create a formalized process where that early engagement best practice is utilized because when we say your permit is deficient and it's repeatedly deficient over and over and over, at some point, that's not your fault. It's ours. At some point, we're not being user-friendly. 

“So if you look at one of the things on the plan is having an outside consultant, some experts come in, they're going to help us look at that process.

“I want it to be somebody who's an honest broker who's coming in as an efficiency expert to look at our permits, look at our forms, look at our approach. 

“I know early engagement, that concierge service, is going to be a big part of that. If 90% of the permits that are coming in are deficient at the outset, we're doing something wrong. 

“Our permitting process is either too complex, hard to understand, not very user-friendly. So we're going to look at all of that soup to nuts, both in terms of having an outsider look at it, who I think will bring great value to actually improving and training our folks to do that in a way where they engage very, very early. 

“In my time in the private sector before I came here as part of a major utility, the large significant data centers, for example, would engage their power partner and us around infrastructure and their ability to power what they were doing before their blueprints were even done.

“We were involved in that conversation and that actually helped drive a lot of their planning and how they design those things. 

“Your permit effort and your application and what you hope to accomplish should be very similar to that, where we're engaged very early, where we're driving those deficiency numbers way down because our systems and our actual permits... 

“If you're an engineer and you can't go online and understand the permit, something's wrong. We need to do that a lot better and we will.”

Acting Secretary Negrin pointed out legislators have a key role to play in improving the permit review process.

“You [Senators] are a conduit not just to the people in your districts, but to the stakeholders who are utilizing these permits, the people who are impacted by the permits, obviously, in terms of their health and safety, but the people who utilize the permit process themselves. They will talk to you and tell you things that they don't always talk to me and tell me about.”

“So the ability for us to tap into you, and I'm going to need guidance from you guys on what that looks like, whether that's an annual summit where you're giving me your top three or four permit users in your district every year who are coming to an event and we're having conversations and we're capturing their data and making sure we're creating an organization that is utilizing continuous improvement to make sure those recommendations and those things are helping to inform our decisions.  I'm going to need your help doing that. 

“And I think you're going to get to play an important role in all of that. 

“But in terms of timing, I want this fixed yesterday. I think my team understands that this is a huge priority and what we hope to accomplish.”

Forming Work Group On Climate/Clean Energy, Co-Chairs Announced

In response to a question from Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, on DEP’s final regulation reducing carbon pollution from power plants consistent with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Acting Secretary Negrin said Gov. Shapiro will soon be announcing the formation of a working group on climate and clean energy policy.

“There are three goals, number one, he wants to address climate and the impacts of climate that are a threat to our environment. Number two, he wants to protect and create high paying energy jobs and protect our workers. Number three, to ensure that our citizens have reliable, affordable, clean energy going into the future.

“The two co-chairs of that group are going to be Mike Dunleavy, who recently retired from IBEW Local 5 [Pittsburgh], and Jackson Morris, who is the eastern regional director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We'll be announcing the members of that committee going forward. It's going to represent industry, it's going to represent environmental groups, it's going to represent consumer advocates, it's going to represent a broad group of stakeholders.” 

Open Question On How $663 Million In RGGI Funds Will Be Used

In response to a question from Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair Senate Environmental Committee,  about why the $663 million in RGGI funds is included in the Governor’s proposed budget, Acting Secretary Negrin said, “We're not here to advocate for RGGI. We're not here to advocate against RGGI.  It's in the budget, obviously, because it's an open matter in litigation. 

“It would be irresponsible not to put it in the budget, because it's a thing right now that we're considering. It's something that's going to go back and forth.

“In terms of how the dollars are used, those are open questions. It's actually used differently in different states. 

“Even though, the carbon price piece is a consistent factor, that market-based cap and trade mechanism is the consistent factor, how states have utilized those dollars has differed and that'll be a decision point for us, but it's the beginning of the process for us, not the end, because we're not doing it yet.”

How Green Will Hydrogen Hubs Really Be?

 In response to a question expressing concerns about how “green” hydrogen hub proposals in Pennsylvania will be from Sen. Nikil Saval (D-Philadelphia),  Acting Secretary Negrin said, “Look, from my perspective, I think it's a new technology, I think it's interesting. 

“When I asked the question when I was first being briefed on hydrogen hubs of who's doing this well, nobody was able to point to a hydrogen hub somewhere that was functioning really, really well. I think it's that cutting edge.

“That doesn't mean that it's not something we should do and we are encouraging those two submissions. We think that we have a really good chance, and I think they're highly competitive, and I think they're the estimates that I've seen in terms of the number of jobs they hope to create and the impact they want to have on the environment.

“It would be, I think, a shame to have this kind of an infrastructure type investment around hydrogen and not make sure that we're getting the benefits, from a climate perspective, that we should be getting.”

“And I think, to be honest, that's our role at DEP. We have a very limited role in terms of the submission and setting it up. 

“Our role is going to be really to make sure, through the permitting process and through the details, that it's protecting the environment. 

“So we need to have the confidence that we need to make sure that the carbon capture piece is working the way it is because, whether it's blue or pink or whatever it is, it's going to be to us to keep the environment safe and make sure that it has the kind of benefits that it needs to have in order to get there.

“So we're going to remain forever diligent. I promise to continue to learn about hydrogen hubs. I think my entire team has been doing that.” 

Electric Grid Reliability And Energy Storage

In response to a question from Sen. Devlin Robinson (R-Allegheny) about the problems in December with the reliability of the PJM electric grid and government policies that impact its performance, Acting Secretary Negrin said, “I can tell you just based on my experience as someone who comes from the utility sector that a healthy mix of a variety of energy sources is always good to have. 

“There are times when in the hottest days of the summer when the wind is not blowing, that we need to make sure we have the power we need in those shoulder months where energy demands spike on a regular basis. We need to make sure we have the power that we need. 

“To be honest, I actually think some of the improvements that I've seen and that I know I saw when I was working for Exelon around battery storage.

“What I'm seeing in terms of battery storage and the ability to do that in a more efficient, reliable way really makes sense. 

“Some of the conversations we're having around these new technologies like the hydrogen hub that was mentioned today are going to help on this issue. 

“Those are resilient energy sources combined with energy storage and battery storage. They're going to help solve those problems”

“You're never going to hear me say that I think fossil fuels are the answer to making sure we have that energy reliability. I think there's a lot of ways to get there. 

“I think nuclear, as you mentioned, is one of the significant ones. We don't need for it to be a sunny day or a windy day in order for nuclear to work. 

“I think that's why you have a governor that believes in all of the above.”

“We need to invest, if we're not investing significantly in battery storage, across the board in every single one of those industries. We're missing the boat.” 

“In terms of the governor's goals, is that we have reliable, affordable, clean energy for folks going into the future. We're fortunate in Pennsylvania to have a variety of resources that we can leverage that are huge natural resources. 

“All we’ve got to do is make sure that we do it in a way that protects the environment and protects the health and safety of folks at the same time.”

Work Group On Preventing Abandonment Of Conventional Oil & Gas Wells

In response to a question from Sen Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester), Minority Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, on how DEP can prevent the continuing abandonment of conventional oil and gas wells based on a December report issued by DEP, Acting Secretary Negrin said, he asked DEP’s Chief Counsel, Carolina DiGiorgio, to form a work group to find creative solutions to prevent abandonments.

“I've asked them to think creatively. I think just to say that we're going to focus on enforcement is not the simple answer. I think anybody can kind of get that piece. 

“But I think being creative around what we can do to make sure that we drive compliance, because again, I don't want it to be a legal “got you” plan. 

“I want it to be a plan that gives clear guidelines, makes sure that we communicate and we touch people sooner rather than later. 

“That by the time we enforce and hold them accountable and do the “got you” piece, they are a bad actor because they've had so many opportunities to do that well, that they've obviously fallen down and have no interest in doing that.

“Although I'm a former prosecutor, I don't want to behave that way in this job, and I shouldn't have to. We should have responsible companies following the guidelines in what they're doing. So stay tuned for that.”

Road Dumping Conventional Oil & Gas Wastewater Is Illegal

In response to a question from Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester), Minority Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, on her concerns about the dumping of conventional oil and gas wastewater on dirt and gravel roads, Jessica Shirley, Acting DEP Executive Deputy Secretary, said, “We do not allow any road spreading of brine for dust suppression or de-icing.”

She went on to explain that while there is a process in the Residual Waste Regulations for approving certain waste materials for use as products, companies have to show DEP through an analysis they are safe to use.

“At this time, we have not approved any folks, any operators. They have not submitted documentation that has been sufficient enough to receive that co-product determination. So… right now, there is no road spreading of brine allowed on Pennsylvania roads.”

Oil & Gas Fund Deficit

In response to questions from Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) at the March 22 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on DEP’s budget request, the Department of Environmental Protection said it is projecting a $1,581,000 deficit in funding for the Oil and Gas Regulation Program.

Jessica Shirley, DEP Acting Executive Deputy, said the misnamed Well Plugging Restricted Account which sets aside permit review fees, fines and penalties to fund the Oil and Gas Program, “Is in jeopardy. It is running out of money.”

“The [drilling] activity has slowed down and our permit fees are not enough to cover the amount of cost [for the program],” Shirley said.

Read more here.

Environmental Justice

In response to a question from Rep. La’Tasha Mayes (D-Allegheny) in the House  on environmental justice, who pointed out her district meets the DEP definition of an environmental justice area, Acting Secretary Negrin said, “I have a very broad view on environmental justice. 

“I think when I was out in Darlington, [Beaver County] Pennsylvania [near site of Norfolk Southern train derailment] ... that's an environmental justice community. 

“I'm sitting there talking to poor white, rural folks who don't have cable, who rely on their neighbors for their news, largely. 

‘The community where I was, outside of Pittsburgh, where that abandoned [natural gas] well [that DEP was plugging] was literally about 25, 30 yards from their front door, that's an environmental justice community.

“We need to take that expansive view. 

“In the past ... and I think the White House doesn't even do this the way they should,  Environmental justice just can't be about communities of color. 

“They are, and they need to be, and that's important for us to have that conversation, especially about systemic racism and the environmental side that's been going on for many, many years, but we need to take a broad view in Pennsylvania around environmental justice in a way that brings all of us along.

“Environmental justice is not just an issue for those of us who are people of color. It's an issue for the poor and rural and those farmers and those communities that we face. 

“One of the things I'm doing, and I'll be quiet because I know I'm talking too long, is I've elevated it to a Deputy Secretary position. 

“Fernando Treviño, who has just started, who's been a community engagement professional for a very, very long time, is going to be leading that office for me.

“I'm going to put a coordinator around environmental justice in every single regional office of DEP across the entire state, in six of our offices, full-time employees. 

“I'm going to have two of them that are floaters and target specific communities like the Asian community that really hasn't been outreached to in a meaningful way around environmental justice. 

“A Latino community that has not been really talked to. Looking at everything from language access, to education, the home energy stuff that we're talking about around energy efficiency. 

“If we're not informing, educating and empowering folks to utilize those grants, we're leaving those dollars on the table and we all need to be having those conversations.”

Click Here for more information.

Overall DEP Staffing Issues

In response to a question from Sen. Timothy Kearney (D-Delaware) about the loss of DEP staff over the years and overall staffing issues, Acting Secretary Negrin said, “I heard a lot about the staffing levels in the organization even before I got here. So I was really concerned and asked the team to take a hard look at that. 

“The high point around staffing, I'll give you a number, was 3,124, 3,000 people back in 2005.

“Obviously that's something we need to track and be incredibly diligent around, but I also think I'm thinking about it very differently. 

“I'm not going to take that magic highpoint number of 3,124. The low point number was 2,449. We are right now at 2,717. So right in the middle of that. 

“It's not as drastic as I thought when I got here and not as good as I thought when I got here. It's somewhere in the middle there.

“So I think the approach that you’ll see is a very responsible, fiscally good management approach that you're seeing where we're starting with 47 positions. 

“I think that's the most we've had and asked for in I think the last 10 years. 

“So it's a good start and a good effort and why I'm content but not fully satisfied. 

“And if I get to see where we are from a performance perspective and how we're doing on modernization of technology, that ask may be different next year. 

“I may be in here asking for more, I may be asking for less depending on how we're doing. 

“If I'm doing great and everything's been fixed and I'm asking for more positions, you guys are going to hold me to account on why I need those positions and I'm going to want to have those answers for you. 

“So I want to do this in a responsible, good management, good government type of way where I'm being thoughtful around that.”

Changing The Culture Of DEP

In response to a question from Sen. Rosemary Brown (R-Monroe) about the responsiveness of DEP to concerns of private dam owners who have to make safety improvements to their dams, Acting Secretary Negrin addressed the broader issue of the culture of DEP.

“I think it's a great question. It also speaks to one of my huge priorities. I've been talking about this throughout the department and I was talking about it during our all hands.

“For me, this question is, although yours is specific to the dam piece, is really about our culture at DEP. 

“First of all, as I've said to many of you, responsiveness starts with me, right? I'm here for you.  But we need to take the approach around being user-friendly across the board in DEP. 

“And that goes all the way down to those folks who are showing up and dealing with those folks, and many of which are small operators and family situations where we need to be different in how we approach the public. 

“I've heard stories of us taking a regulator mindset in a way that is incredibly, whether combative is a nice way of putting it, but just harsh.

“And we serve the public. And it's incredibly important for folks to understand who we are from a cultural perspective. And I think that goes across the board. 

“My larger answer, and then we can get into a little bit more specifics on the dam piece if anybody wants to add to that, is that I need to change the culture around how we interact with the public. 

“I need to change the culture in terms of how we deal with people who are seeking applications and permits. We need to change the culture in terms of how we have oversight. 

“We can do our jobs and protect the environment and also be incredibly user-friendly. 

“These are not folks who are generally bad actors. These are folks who need our help and support as an agency. 

“And we should not be in the gotcha game. We should be in the game where we're facilitating these operations and folks in a way that culture kind of permeates the department and how we look at how we do our jobs.

“And if I want to be really clear, and I've said this a number of times, if some of that behavior happens where we are... I hate bullies. 

“Whether you're a bully in the playground or a regulatory bully. And if that kind of behavior happens at DEP while I'm here, those people are not going to be here any longer. 

“We need to change the way we approach. I love public service. It's why I came back to do public service. 

“We should all feel the same way about the honor and privilege that it is to represent the Commonwealth and our citizens and our work every day should reflect that feeling.” 

[Note: Acting Secretary Negrin used DEP’s response to Norfolk Southern train derailment as an example of public service culture.  Read more here.]

Content But Not Satisfied

When asked about whether, generally, he was pleased with the budget proposal for DEP, Acting Secretary Negrin said he is “content,” but “not satisfied.”

“I think for me it's really about being incremental and methodical. I think it's taken some years for us for this budget to get to where we are, both in terms of complement and dollars. 

“I'm worried about where a lot of our funds are in terms of having long-term sustainable funding, for many of them.

“ I look at what our water department does around ensuring that we have safe drinking water and how they sometimes rob Peter to pay Paul to make sure we're doing all of that well. 

“So long-term sustainable funding is going to continue to be a real priority for me.

“I think the reason why I'm content is because I think this is the beginning of a conversation. 

“I think we're going to do two budgets in basically 15 months and that this Administration really had just a few weeks to put this budget together and I think it all really reflects a lot of our priorities and is heading in the right direction.

“But I just got here, so I still don't know everything I need to know to sit across from you and tell you exactly what I need in many of our departments. And I'm not going to be arrogant enough to say that that's already happened. So I think this is the beginning of a conversation around where I want to go.

“ I know I'm not satisfied because I think it's taken us many years to get here and it's going to take us some years to dig out and I'm okay with that. 

“I am fairly confident that I can do that with good management, being prudent and fiscally responsible. 

“And the use of technology that we're talking about, that the big ask may never come. It may be slow, gradual, consistent improvements over the years.

“It's going to be driven for me, which I've talked about a lot about that center of excellence, it's going to be driven for me on what those outcomes and those KPIs tell me. 

“We're either going to be successful and driving things to having a data driven approach to government. That's pretty unique. 

“I've done it before and it was well accepted and provided great outcomes before. But you never know what that's going to look like as you kind of go through it. 

“So for me to throw out a big magical number in terms of complement or dollars on many of these things, I think would be disingenuous. 

“I think I need to see what I can do with what I have and I'm getting a significant increase this year that I'm incredibly content with. 

“Whether that's going to be enough, I think the data will tell us that next year.”

Click Here for a copy of DEP’s Budget Testimony.

10 Point Plan For Improving Permit Review Efficiency

Senate Budget Hearing Videos + Written Testimony

Resource Links:

-- Click Here for DCNR’s written budget testimony.

-- DCNR Posts FY 2023-24 Budget Proposal Documents

-- Click Here for a copy of DEP’s Budget Testimony.

-- 10 Point Plan For Improving Permit Review Efficiency

-- DEP Posts Documents On Proposed FY 2023-24 Agency Budget Request

-- Click Here for a copy of the expanded Proposed Budget In Brief.

-- Click Here for Gov. Shapiro’s Budget Address as prepared.


-- PA Capital-Star: Permitting Reform, RGGI Carbon Pollution Program Take Center Stage At DEP’s Senate Budget Hearing

-- The Center Square - Anthony Hennen: PA’s Permitting Delays, Carbon Tax [RGGI] Still Vexing Lawmakers

-- Post-Gazette/ - Robert Swift: Senate DEP Budget Hearing Focuses On Permit Reform, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Related Articles This Week - Budget:

-- DEP Offers 10 Point Plan To Improve Permit Reviews; Climate/Energy Work Group Co-Chairs Announced; Work Group Formed To Prevent New Oil & Gas Well Abandonments  [PaEN]

-- House Budget Hearing: Acting DEP Secretary Outlines His Views On Environmental Justice, Announces Fernando Treviño As Special Deputy For Environmental Justice  [PaEN]

-- DEP Acting Secretary Negrin Wants To Encourage A Culture Of Being User-Friendly At DEP And Used The Train Derailment Response As An Example  [PaEN]  

-- DEP Projects Over $1.5 Million Deficit In Account Funding Oil & Gas Regulation Program In FY 2023-24  [PaEN]

-- DEP Budget Testimony: Increasing Permitting Efficiency, Cleaning Up Legacy Pollution, Investing In Communities, Holding Companies Accountable  [PaEN]

-- Senate Republicans Again Suggest DCNR Allow More Natural Gas Drilling To Fund Park/Forest Operations; New Hellbender License Plate Coming In June  [PaEN]

-- DCNR Budget Testimony: Supporting PA’s Outdoor Recreation Industry, Conserving Natural Resources [PaEN]

-- Agriculture Budget Testimony: Budget Proposal Supports Agriculture Economy; Land & Water Stewardship; Organic Farming; Helps Deal With Threats To Food System  [PaEN]

-- Budget Refresher: Hearings Start March 21 For DCNR, DEP, Agriculture FY 2023-24 Budget Requests

[Posted: March 22, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

No comments :

Post a Comment

Subscribe To Receive Updates:

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner