The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which oversees the state's oil and gas industry, said Friday it would tweak its rulemaking process with improvements for public participation through a new online engagement system.
The new eComment system will allow the public to more easily access technical documents and other policy-related proposals, submit comments online and view the full text of all public statements submitted.
The move follows a report last year from the state's auditor general that said the agency had largely failed to fulfill its regulatory obligations because it was hampered by outdated technology, inadequate resources and a lack of staff, especially as it related to monitoring the nation's largest gas field in the Marcellus Shale (see Shale Daily, July 22, 2014).
The report was highly critical of department technology and said DEP's electronic management systems must be updated to adequately monitor waste, compile reliable data and help reply to public complaints or inquiries, which were found to be too slow in some cases.
For the first time, the new system will allow people to submit comments electronically. DEP also plans to publish the comments it receives, both electronically and in writing, within five business days of receiving them, rather than waiting until all comments are summarized in a response document that is typically published after the comment period is over.
The new system also comes as oil and natural gas drillers in the state are facing tighter environmental regulations proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf's administration (see Shale Daily, March 9). The DEP has been at work on those rules for about four years, but the new administration, legislation and more than 24,000 public comments have delayed the process (see Shale Daily, May 13, 2014).
Both state residents and industry representatives have criticized the old system for a lack of transparency, based on comments at a recent public hearing on the proposed oil and gas regulations (see Shale Daily, April 30).
Along with the new system, DEP said it would now publish a non-regulatory agenda twice per year that lists all of the policies and regulations the agency plans to introduce or revise. It could be months, however, before the eComment system and related policies are implemented. The agency is opening a public comment period for the changes that will end on July 14.