Guidelines put in place last year by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to expedite the drilling permit application process have significantly reduced the agency’s backlog, DEP said Thursday.

“The early results are nothing short of stunning,” said DEP Secretary Mike Krancer.

Between Nov. 14 and Jan. 31, DEP increased its permit review efficiency by 19% in oil and gas, according to the first of four quarterly reports due to detail progress under the Permit Review Process and Permit Decision Guarantee policy adopted last year. The results were even better in other sectors: a 74% improvement in mining programs, 68% in water programs and 67% in waste, air radiation and remediation.

“The agency has provided permit applicants with decisions within the targeted timeframes nearly 98% of the time and has reduced the permit application backlog by about 40%,” DEP said.

Gov. Tom Corbett issued an executive order last July calling for changes in DEP’s permitting processes on the grounds that the oil and natural gas industry, nonprofit groups and local governments had complained that the old process was inefficient and unpredictable (see Shale Daily, July 26, 2012).

After investigating its own application and permit procedures, the DEP found that about 40% of applications were deficient or lacked key information necessary for it to issue a permit (see Shale Daily, Sept. 5, 2012). Under the new process, which was first implemented in November, DEP may deny an application if it lacks necessary information (see Shale Daily, Nov. 7, 2012). Completed permit applications that are technically deficient can also be denied by the agency. DEP policies also strongly encourage pre-application conferences between agency staff and applicants to discuss expectations and obligations. And DEP managers are given guidance over how to prioritize the workload for the review of permits.

There were a total of 9,982 applications awaiting decisions in DEP’s review process when Corbett issued his executive order. That number was down 39% to 6,058 at the end of last month, the agency said.

The new process aims to eliminate what had become an inefficient process of “back and forth” of permit applications, DEP said. Before the new policy, about 40% of permit applications came in the door with substantial deficiencies that prevented timely review.

“We have accomplished quite a paradigm shift,” Krancer said. “Under the Governor’s and DEP’s initiative, less than 1.5% of applications have been in that category. This allows DEP permit reviewers to focus on their core functions of protecting the environment and public health and safety.”