Environmental protection takes a significant hit
Published: August 16, 2012
State environmental regulators told The Associated Press last year that they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing each of thousands of permit applications for natural gas wells, even though the environment surrounding each well is unique to that site.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s reaction? That’s not fast enough.
After cutting the DEP budget by more than $20 million during his first 18 months in office, the governor issued an executive order July 24 that will pressure DEP personnel to quickly complete their reviews, regardless of conditions on the ground. It requires the DEP to set specific deadlines for DEP decisions and makes compliance with those deadlines part of the employees’ performance evaluation standards.
DEP’s appropriate mission, of course, is environmental protection rather than mere speed. The governor would have the agency treat all complete permit applications alike even though each location has unique environmental features.
Even under existing procedures, DEP staffers told the AP, evaluators did not spend extra time on applications to drill near fragile waterways that have specific state and federal protections.
The order is curious in several ways.
It rescinds an executive order issued in 1995 by Gov. Tom Ridge, under which the DEP refunded permit fees to applicants if the agency did not review applications within a set time period. Since then, the DEP has refunded a tiny portion of application fees.
According to the governor, he acted because the complaint “I have received over and over again is the time it takes for businesses, nonprofit organizations and governments to work through the permitting process.”
What one hears, of course, is a function of to whom one listens. Corbett listens very intently to the gas industry, especially since his insistence on vast tax breaks for a gas-based Shell petrochemical refinery in Beaver County that will require an array of environmental clearances. His hearing relative to the environmental impact of drilling has been far more selective. Corbett’s executive order would be more appropriate for an economic development agency, but that is not the legitimate mission of the DEP. The order is a back-door means to diminish environmental protection.