Many of you are aware that our state representatives have introduced several bills that will alter how our state government will review and administer oil and gas permit applications that today are submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”). Two of those bills, House Bill (“HB”) 1106, which would reform the permitting process, and 1107, which would create an independent commission to deal solely with the DEP permit process, recently have been passed by the House Committee and will be voted upon on the House floor in the coming days.
In response to the House Committee’s vote, many of you took the time to send a letter to your House Representatives that express your concerns about these bills. One of these representatives, Mr. Tim O’Neal, who represents part of Washington County, took the time to reply to your concerns. This article will review his comments and provide clarity to what HB 1106 and 1107 brings to the Commonwealth.
In his letter, Mr. O’Neal begins with a brief explanation of HB 1106. He states that this bill “establishes new processes and timelines for environmental permits that aim to make the approval process more time-efficient, reliable for developers, and streamlined.” This is true. HB 1106 will expedite the permit approval process by giving the DEP thirty days to review the permit for approval. If the department fails to give a reply to the applicant in this time, the application is approved by default, no matter if it is complete, in compliance with state or federal regulations, or could harm surrounding landowners. Thus, it is faster for industry to get what they want, even if it is at the cost of our health and safety or to the detriment of our property.
Mr. O’Neal continues to share that HB 1106 “does not increase the likelihood of deficient permits from being issued rather increase the likelihood of good permits being approved.” This sounds respectable; however, Mr. O’Neal provides no authority to this assertion, nor does the language of HB 1106. As stated above, HB 1106 shortens the time frame the department has from 45 days to 30 days to review an application. HB 1106 does not provide a means to weed out “good” or “bad” permits, nor does it create any other permit review process to ensure only “good” permits are approved. What it does do is significantly reduce the time allowed to review a submitted permit. HB 1106 places no new guidelines, test, or precautionary measures on the applicant. If under a more stringent deadline, the time one has to look into safety measures is also decreased. It is concerning that Mr. O’Neal believes that HB 1106 promises that only “good” permits will be issued when industry has failed to follow protocol many times in the past by submitting incomplete applications time after time. Looking at the facts, it is both irrational and irresponsible to be so confident that HB 1106 will provide the Commonwealth with adequate protection.
Next, Mr. O’Neal explains part of the current permitting process. He correctly states that the department and the applicant will meet and review the application. He then adds, “[t]his bill simply removes the need for DEP to be the middleman that delays the process.” This is completely wrong. HB 1106 does not remove the department from the permitting process. It is disconcerting that Mr. O’Neal, a sponsor of HB 1106, could be so wrong about what the bill actually does. Additionally, the department receives countless incomplete applications from industry. When this happens, the department acts as a tutor to help the applicant correctly fill out their application. By doing so, the DEP accomplishes two goals: it ensures that the permit application is in compliance and it also speeds up the process of permitting. Otherwise, the applicant is left on their own to figure out what they did wrong in the first place. If you consider a teacher who helps the applicant comply with the DEP, state, and federal regulations and speeds up the process a “middleman,” so be it. But remember that this “middleman” has a fiduciary duty to ensure that our health, safety, and property are protected. Therefore, Mr. O’Neal’s statement is misleading, ill-informed, and wrong.
The response letter then moves on to speak about HB 1107. His description of HB 1107, that the bill would transfer the permitting duties of the department to a new Permitting Commission, is correct. Additionally, his five points that describe the age restriction, that at least two members of the Commission are to be engineers, and the relationship between the Commission and elected offices of the Commonwealth is also correct. However, what Mr. O’Neal fails to address are the concerns that his constituents brought to his attention.
We shared with Mr. O’Neal that we are concerned that HB 1107 will jeopardize our communities, our natural resources, and our health, due in part to the fact that HB 1107 removes the DEP from the permitting process and replaces the agency with a politically appointed five-person panel. It is clear under HB 1107 that the Commission will have at least two engineers on board. What is not answered is what is the vetting process on how these engineers are chosen. Again, this Commission is politically appointed by politicians who are not experts in the environmental field. That is why we have the DEP in the first place. The DEP is a state agency that vets our environmental experts, the very ones who make decisions on what is safe for us here in the Commonwealth. Lastly, we shared that we thought that as our representative, Mr. O’Neal would help create jobs, not find ways to fire DEP employees all over the state.
Since Mr. O’Neal, who again is a sponsor of HB 1107, is hesitant to share the fine details of what HB 1107 really does, we would be happy to state the facts. HB 1107 will remove every position in the department that is involved with the oil and gas permitting process: That is, all the DEP’s engineers, hydrologists, geologists, biologists and the like will lose their job. Those with years of experience in the department will then be replaced by five people, three of which need no qualifications whatsoever other than being over the age of 25. The other two simply need to be “licensed engineers”; no certain field or fields of engineers are specified. HB 1107 does provide that the politicians hiring the Commission are to favor the applicants from DEP, but nothing in the bill requires them to actually hire them. In other words, HB 1107 removes all of the dozens, possibly even hundreds of people, with direct expertise in their field and replaces them with five outsiders, who are politically appointed, by politicians who receive direct funding from the oil and gas industry, to fulfill the requirements that the entire permitting team within the DEP is currently doing.
Sadly, our representatives claim that they are doing what they can to create jobs. However, HB 1107 does not represent this sentiment. HB 1107 removes good union jobs from Pennsylvanians who are already established here in our Commonwealth. Since 2003, more than 40% of DEP’s fund has been cut. Due to these cuts, over 700 of the department’s staff has been lost. Why would Mr. O’Neal support and sponsor a bill that would only continue this trend, a trend that puts the Commonwealth’s health, safety, and natural resources in jeopardy? It almost looks like Mr. O’Neal prefers the out-of-state industry shareholders over his constituents.
We must concede that we are lucky to have a state representative who took the time to get back to his constituents, as many representatives have not. It is this open dialogue that keeps the democratic process alive. However, we are discouraged that Mr. O’Neal failed to actually address our concerns on the matters that we shared with him. It is also discouraging to see that Mr. O’Neal was wrong on many aspects of the bills that he is actively sponsoring. We welcome Mr. O’Neal to reach out again to his constituents. We hope that when he does, he will take the time to address the actual concerns brought to his attention, and that if he does, he will not simply bring speaking points to the conversation. We also encourage him to vote no on both of these bills, as the harms to our communities are heightened by their language. Lastly, we encourage all of our elected officials to read any and all proposed bills in their entirety to ensure they are making the right decision for the state and those who live here.
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