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Pennsylvania Bill Seeks One Online Stop For Oil/NatGas Permits

A Pennsylvania lawmaker has introduced legislation to ease one aspect of the state Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) permitting process.

Republican Rep. Jason Ortitay wants all DEP permits to be available in a single, "navigable" location on the agency's website. HB 1003 would also require DEP to include clear timelines to secure the permits and the statutory and regulatory authority requiring them. Currently, permitting information is not available in one online location.

"During the House Appropriations Committee budget hearings, I expressed concerns I have heard from businesses about the DEP permitting process," Ortitay said in a statement. "Employers who do work in multiple states have said environmental permits take a much longer time in Pennsylvania as compared to our neighboring states. This delay sends a message that Pennsylvania is not open for business."

The oil and natural gas industry has bemoaned the DEP's permitting process over the years. To be sure, the agency's job hasn't gotten any easier with the rise of the Marcellus and Utica shales, but agency officials have acknowledged the problem and continue to address it.

Ortitay's bill would also require DEP to compile, organize and list all of its permits and the relevant timelines in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. The legislation, his office said, would help streamline the process and "clear up uncertainty."

The bill comes at a time when DEP continues to grapple with declining funds and staff shortages. The agency's state general fund appropriation has decreased steadily from a high of $245.6 million in 2002-2003 to the $152 million proposed in Gov. Tom Wolf's fiscal year 2017-2018 budget. The proposal would increase the agency's state general fund allocation by just $1.2 million compared to FY 2016-2017.

DEP lost 14% of its workforce between 2006-2016. The agency receives about 22% of its funding from the state general fund, 28% from federal funds and another 50% from fees and fines. It has requested a total spending authorization of about $728 million for FY 2017-2018.

"For DEP, this year's challenges are similar to last year's," said DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell during his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in February. "As you've heard in prior years' testimony, DEP staffing numbers continue to decline due to budget constraints, despite the same or increasing expectations to achieve our mission. We are constantly reviewing the results of staffing departures."

The agency has tried to improve the experience for the regulated community by developing and deploying electronic tools, web-based applications and electronic document management. It will also undergo an evaluation of the permit review process over the next several months to assess its efficiency, McDonnell told lawmakers.

Part of Ortitay's bill would be aimed at condensing the wide variety of permits required by DEP into a more digestible location for applicants. McDonnell said DEP received more than 30,000 permit applications in FY 2015-2016. HB 1003 was last referred to the House Environmental Resources and Energy Commission on March 28.

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