Monday, June 26, 2023

Senate Committee Unanimously Reports Out Nomination Of Richard Negrin As Secretary Of DEP

On June 26, the
Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee unanimously voted to report out the nomination of Richard Negrin as Secretary of DEP with a favorable recommendation.

The nomination now goes to the full Senate which has until June 28 to act.

The Committee postponed action on these bills--

-- Independent Energy Information Office: Senate Bill 832 (Yaw-R-Lycoming) that would establish the Independent Energy Information Office to provide “impartial, timely and data driven analysis to guide the state in determining and meeting future energy needs”  modeled on the current Independent Fiscal Office. An amendment to the bill is expected. This initiative continues efforts by Republicans to build their own taxpayer-funded environmental and energy bureaucracy; and

-- Study Of Electricity Billing:  Senate Resolution 116 (Yaw-R-Lycoming) directing the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the issue of consolidated electricity billing. 

Confirmation Questions

Several issues were raised by Senators prior to the unanimous vote on Acting Secretary Negrin.  They included--

-- Increasing Safety Zones Around Natural Gas Infrastructure: Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Committee, raised what he called a very “serious concern” about an email sent by DEP Friday expressing support for House Bill 170 (Otten-D-Chester) establishing 2,500 foot or 5,000 foot setbacks or safety zones from natural gas compressor stations, well pads, pits, storage tanks, wastewater, chemicals, condensate and other waste as recommended in Attorney General Shapiro’s Grand Jury Report (sponsor summary).

“For all practical purposes, that would shut down about 99% of the [shale gas] drilling in the most productive areas in Pennsylvania. If it's your intent to ban drilling, then let's say, "We're going to ban drilling," said Sen. Yaw.

[Note: House Bill 170 was due to be considered by the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Tuesday, June 27, but House Democratic leadership blocked the Committee from considering the bill.  Read more here.]

Acting Secretary Negrin responded by saying, “We [DEP] have not made a public statement about whether we support or whether we don't. I don't see it as my role, and I've had this conversation before, to support or oppose bills, certainly at this phase. 

“I think that's a great question for our legislative team in the Governor's Office. 

“It is my obligation, I think, as Secretary of DEP, to be an honest broker around impacts on the environment when I get pulled in as a stakeholder on questions around things like offsets. 

“As I'm familiar with that bill, and I have not read it, because I've got my hands full every single day, I'm not following and tracking every bill that's out there, but it closely mirrors, what my understanding is, the Grand Jury Report that came out from the AG's [Attorney General’s] office, that set that first number.

“My first week in office here, I created a working group around the recommendations made around that grand jury report.

“I've had a team, my chief counsel, Carolina DiGiorgio, who's present, has been leading that effort from our perspective, to take a look at those recommendations.

“We expect to be rolling out and looking at our findings on the basis of those recommendations probably by the end of the summer. 

“We're giving it a very careful review in terms of those recommendations, and what, if anything, we should be doing to implement those. 

“I have not conducted a scientific study at DEP around what's the right number of those offsets, and what's the exact feat that should be a part of that, and I don't know that we're going to do that as an organization. 

“We're looking at different states, and I know her team is working closely on that. When that's ready to go, I think we'll speak to those specific feet, and that issue, on the basis of the grand jury report.”

Sen. Yaw followed up by saying, “I'm glad you commented about grand juries because this particular grand jury happened to involve a lot of situations that have been handled by DEP years earlier. And thoughtfully, the thinking was that they had all been resolved and all of a sudden they are resurrected by the attorney general's office and then come back in the form of a grand jury report. 

“The people, I mean, I know whether I'm supposed to or not, a lot of the people that testified at that hearing are, how do I want to say, I'm not sure that their testimony live would be before the general public would be taken the same way. That's the only caution I will say about the grand jury report,” said Sen. Yaw.

“Well just to ask you this,” said Sen. Yaw, “That according to this note [from DEP on HB 170] that was sent out, the drilling, the increased proximity to frack related air and water pollution to respiratory. It's linked to cardiovascular, reproductive and nervous system damage. Have there been any studies recently that disclosed these things? If so, I've not heard of them. Have you?”

Acting Secretary Negrin responded by saying, “Yeah, there are a number of studies that talk about the impact of all kinds of activities-- conventional as well as unconventional. It is my responsibility to look at those. It is my responsibility to make recommendations where I believe there's an impact.”

[Note: There have been multiple studies by academic institutions on the health and environmental impacts of conventional and unconventional shale gas development in Pennsylvania released since fracking began in Pennsylvania in 1963.  Read more here.

[The Environmental Health Project has made recommendations for increasing setback safety zones for 10 years based on health studies.  Read more hereRead more here.

[There have been state Senate hearings on health studies.  Read more here.

[There is an annual conference by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and the PA League of Women Voters reviewing the latest health studies.  Read more here.

[The Physicians for Social Responsibility release a Compendium of Scientific and Medical Studies On Risk, Harms of Fracking and Oil and Gas Infrastructure periodically.  The 2022 Compendium had a collection of 2,000 abstracts.  Read more here.]

-- Norfolk Southern Train Derailment: In response to a request by Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) for a general update on the response to the train derailment, Acting Secretary Negrin said none of the samples of water (streams and water wells), soil or air in Pennsylvania has shown any dangerous levels of chemicals.

He said Norfolk Southern has been following through on reimbursing farms for their losses, in particular at a small farm he visited in Beaver County a few weeks ago.

“There's no plan to stop that testing because there is some potential long-term impact that we're going to continue to monitor,” said Acting Secretary Negrin.  “I don't believe they're really at risk based on what the science shows me and the hydrogeology that's out there in terms of what's going on with the groundwater and the soil. We're not seeing anything that scares me or anyone in direct connection to the train derailment.”

“There's a responsibility I think we all have as public servants to these folks who are out there who are going to be negatively impacted from an economic perspective.” 

-- Implementing 10-Point Permit Review Plan: Also in response to a question from Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver),  Acting Secretary Negrin said, “I'm focused on the 10-point plan [to improve permit review efficiency announced in March.]”  Read more here]  

“We're focused and have made progress on every single one of those at, well ... Let me restate that because I'm under oath. All but one, the ninth one, which is really about training our folks, we're not going to do yet because why train them on systems that are broken. We're going to train them on systems that are working and that are good. That'll be the last thing we do.”

“Every single [one] of the rest of those, whether it's the rapid response team, whether it's looking at whether we're fast tracking, we've got a working group in place, those things are all in motion. 

“We've got a pilot in place in many of those, either already started or about to be started in the next few weeks. 

“But I'm going to tell you, I've got a short-term plan, and we're launching that on Wednesday. 

“I've been planning for months around 102 [Erosion and Sedimentation Controls] and 105 [Waterways and Encroachments], which are the two permits that give us the most headaches in terms of scope, and really the most volume. I'm leading that project myself. It's called Project Jumpstart.”

“But the piece that I'm excited about, which you guys know I keep talking about is that Chief Customer Service Officer piece. 

“From a cultural perspective, when you train everybody who has an interaction with a stakeholder, when you train everybody who has an interaction with the public in professional customer service skills and you start tracking those matrices and you start measuring a customer satisfaction score with a third party that tells you what your score is, so that it's not just anecdotal. 

“You're not just hearing one person who's not happy, you're getting real data around how you're doing as an organization. That's what we're going to do.

“She's starting in a week. She's a customer service professional. She's done this before for me.”

“​​When I look into many of our permitting issues, sometimes I think DEP is an easy, very, very convenient punching bag on a lot of those. 

“We have our issues, we'll work on those and we'll fix them. But when I tell you, when I dig into some of the times when it's brought to my attention, sometimes it's about 20% DEP and about 30%, 40% stakeholder, maybe the contractor that was hired, not even the applicant. Sometimes the applicant needs to do a better job, but sometimes there's collective blame to go along.”

“I want to fix the DEP part, but I want to help our consultants do that better. I want to give them the guidelines they need. I want to help our applicants do that better. I'm meeting with stakeholders.

“This is an important point for you guys. If you know someone in your district who is specifically concerned about permitting and has ideas on how we can improve that, I am all ears. We're pulling those stakeholders in. 

“That's part 10 of that permit plan is making sure that we have a robust stakeholder engagement effort around listening to those folks.”

“The big piece, I think, and I'll do a teaser for my budget testimony next year, is the DEP budget has increased right now of roughly 10%, a little under 10% for this year. 

“I'm going to need more next year, and a lot of that's going to be driven around our efforts to modernize our systems. I know, I've done that before, and I know that we're going to need more resources to do that.

“I've got an eFACTS [data information] program that we use that is 35 years old, 35 years old. I've got an e-permitting system that is very, very old. We're doing some short-term things to make sure that we can tinker with those systems and make them more beneficial for us and more efficient for us right now while we're waiting, part of the short-term plan. 

“But in the long-term, if I still have a system that's 35 years old or e-permitting, which is now at least 15 years old, I've got systems that don't work. 

“For all of us, if we want to increase and improve the efficiency around permitting, technology needs to be an incredibly important part of that.”

Closing Comments

Sen. Yaw made these comments at the end of questions and prior to the vote on the nomination--

“I started off my questions the way I did with the setback requirements and its potential impact on the gas industry for one is because I think it was last week, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, something like that, is when the [Act 13] impact fee [revenue] numbers were released for 2022, which is the highest in history at $279 million. 

“And of that, I think probably about $40 million went to counties and municipalities in my district. So that's a huge issue. 

“And yes, it involves environmental questions, but there are definitely huge economic issues involved for counties, for municipalities, and that's throughout the state.

“And that was why I started with that, because that's critical I think, to recognize that. I've also thought about, I know your background. 

“We've had several conversations, maybe several is not the right word, maybe numerous is better.  We're on the Chesapeake Bay Commission together.

“And I don't mean this to be facetious at all, but you're a lawyer, I'm a lawyer and I guess I would say I trust you and I know that you have a lot of background. You're very experienced, and I'm taking you at your word. 

“You can separate fact from fiction and fact from emotion. And I think that that's critical because I know people get upset about all kinds of things, especially any environmental issue, but when you really look at it, it's like, wait a minute, what are the real facts here, and what are the ramifications of those facts?

“I hear it all the time about frack sites. Well, I'm not sure that people know what a frack site is because it lasts about a week or less. 

“And in any event, so with that background and the fact that I've had a lot of very good conversations with you, I will make a motion that we report this nomination now with a favorable recommendation.”

Click Here for a video of the meeting.

Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-787-3280 or sending email to: gyaw@pasen.gov.   Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-787-5709 or sending email to: senatorcomitta@pasenate.com.

Related Articles - Richard Negrin:

-- Gov. Shapiro’s Budget Proposes Major Initiative To Speed Up DEP Permit Reviews/ Inspections; Double Oil & Gas Fund Investment In State Parks/Forests Infrastructure  [PaEN]

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

-- 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]

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

-- DEP Acting Secretary Negrin: All Climate Change Is Local - We Are Guardians Of Our Neighborhoods, We Are To Act In Service To Our Neighbors  [PaEN]

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

-- Citizens Advisory Council Presentations Highlight New Center Of Environmental Excellence At DEP To Improve Permitting Efficiency, Deliver Best In Class Service, Share Results; Environmental Justice; More    [PaEN]

-- House Committee Reports Out Bill Requiring The Evaluation Of Cumulative Impacts Of Some New Pollution Sources On Communities Already Burdened By Pollution; And Other Bills  [PaEN]

-- Republicans, Shale Gas Industry Oppose House Bill Requiring The Evaluation Of Cumulative Impacts Of Some New Pollution Sources On Communities Already Burdened By Pollution  [PaEN]

-- Democrats On House Environmental Committee Report Out Bill To Help Prevent The Routine Abandonment Of 561 Conventional Oil/Gas Wells A Year  [PaEN]

-- DEP Signs Consent Order Including $10 Million In Penalties, Local Payments With Shell Petrochemical Plant In Beaver County To Resolve Air Quality Violations; Plant To Restart May 24  [PaEN]

NewsClip:

-- TribLive Guest Essay: Train Derailments Bode Poorly For Public Health Amid Planned Petrochemical And Hydrogen Hubs - By Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester), Alison Steele, Environmental Health Project

Related Articles This Week:

-- Independent Fiscal Office Projects 2023 Act 13 Shale Gas Drilling Impact Fee Revenue At $180 to $184 Million, A Drop Of $94 Million From 2022 Revenue  [PaEN] 

[Posted: June 26, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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