Permitting reform, carbon compact take center stage at DEP’s budget hearing
DEP’s proposed $199.6M general fund appropriation is an increase of 9.1% from the current fiscal year
(l-r): Ramez Ziadeh, Ian Harlow, Richard Negrin, and Jessica Shirley testify on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection at a Senate Appropriations hearing on Wednesday, March 22, 2023 (Screen Capture)
Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Richard Negrín and his team faced tough questions from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday about how the agency plans to spend its proposed $199.6 million budget in the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Lawmakers from both parties asked Negrín about the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state carbon credit program; permitting reform, and regulatory enforcement at Wednesday’s hearing, hoping to better understand the department’s spending priorities for the new fiscal year, which is set to begin on July 1.
DEP’s proposed appropriation is an increase of 9.1% from the current fiscal year.
In state budget documents, the Shapiro administration has said that the funds will be used to expand resources at DEP and improve oversight capabilities within the department.
State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, began the hearing by asking the department to explain the multi-state carbon credit program and how the administration arrived at the $663.3 million in expected revenue from RGGI.
“I want to know, what is RGGI?” Yaw asked. “How does it work? Where does this $663 million come from?”
Despite joining the program in April 2022 under former-Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, Pennsylvania has yet to participate in any of RGGI’s quarterly carbon credit auctions due to pending litigation challenging its constitutionality.
Negrín said the $663.3-million figure is an estimate based on state modeling projections. The department said that the funds could be used to combat climate change, improve air and water quality, and invest in renewable energy initiatives across the commonwealth.
While Pennsylvania’s involvement in the program is still being litigated, Negrín argued that “it would be irresponsible not to put it in the budget.”
Should the Commonwealth Court decide that Pennsylvania can participate in RGGI, Negrín said the department has proposed funding for 17 staff positions that would oversee the implementation of the program in Pennsylvania “if and when RGGI comes into play.”
In his first budget hearing as acting secretary, Negrín, who has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, told the committee that he would like to change the culture at DEP to be more “user friendly” and responsive and less of a “regulatory bully.”
“I hate bullies,” Negrín said, adding “responsiveness starts with me.”
When asked by lawmakers how the department would still enforce environmental regulations without “bullying” private sector businesses to fulfill their obligations, Negrín said it’s about “being creative around what we can do to drive guidance.”
Negrín explained that he doesn’t want a “gotcha” plan, but a solution that instead gives permitters every opportunity to meet DEP compliance before a fine is levied.
At the hearing, lawmakers from both parties expressed interest in working with the department to reform the commonwealth’s cumbersome permitting process ⸺ a priority of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration.
In January, Shapiro announced the creation of the Office of Transformation and Opportunity to help Pennsylvania businesses navigate the state permitting process and identify ways to streamline the lengthy process.
Office of Transformation and Opportunity aims to be ‘one-stop shop’ for Pa. businesses
In addition to a backlog of applications, lawmakers and DEP agreed that the current permitting process is slow, difficult to complete, and lacks uniformity.
“The administration understands the importance of proactively addressing the permitting process and we are working internally to reduce backlog and deficiencies, permitting wait times, and communication between businesses and the department,” Negrín testified.
State Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, asked how DEP would utilize a proposed $5.75 million line item to expand its oversight capabilities.
To address permitting issues, DEP has proposed hiring 30 new staff to serve as permit specialists, conducting inspections, advising the department, and engaging with stakeholders.
“Fixing the permitting process is going to make everybody happy,” Negrín said.
While the additional staff will help the department process the backlog of permit applications, Negrín said it’s not an issue that can be fixed in one budget cycle.
“I’m content, but not satisfied,” Negrín said of the proposed spending plan.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.