DEP’s Permit-Fee Economy

Can steep budget cuts to the PA Department of Environmental Protection be offset with gas drilling permit fees?

At the February 27, 2012 Democratic Policy Committee Meeting in Bryn Mawr, PA, the word “overwhelmed” was repeatedly used to describe the PA Department of Environmental Protection. Most notably, George Jugovic, Jr., then Senior Attorney and newly named CEO for PennFuture, and former Southwest Regional Director of the PA DEP, stated that when he asked Joyce Epps, DEP Bureau of Air Quality director, what her department needed most to effectively regulate Marcellus air emissions, she replied emphatically, “We need more people.”

Such language was hardly surprising. Rep. Greg Vitali [D-166th, Delaware] chaired the meeting, and in the week prior he had gone on record stating his “disappointment” in the Marcellus Shale Impact Fee legislation. In a February 21 article by Kathleen E. Carey in The Daily Times, Vitali said, “We missed a good opportunity with the drilling tax.”

He went on to ‘rail’ against inadequate setbacks and question why personnel cuts were being made at a time when “the challenges of the Marcellus Shale come into play.

DelcoPop may have called Vitali a “preening liberal” in the Comment section, but the gentleman from Delaware County remains undeterred. On Tuesday, March 6, 2012 he was found butting heads with the current DEP Secretary, Michael Krancer at a House budget hearing in Harrisburg. Krancer, who is “bullish” on the new state budget, defended the governor’s cuts to his agency, which whittle down DEP’s funding to $127 million – its lowest level in many years.

Vitali was unwilling to allow the secretary to dismiss questions about DEP’s ability to regulate gas drilling effectively amid continued reductions. Oh, the temerity! Krancer pointed to permits fees as the answer to the department’s fiscal conundrum and, according to Laura Olson in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the two-and-a-half hour meeting got testy.

Permit Fees = The New Funding Reality

Some say using permit fees to fund DEP operations is akin to a Ponzi Scheme. Ponzi or not, this scheme is raising eyebrows everywhere. In a post by Susan Phillips at State Impact PA, Clean Water Action Director, Myron Arnowitt, says “Using permit application fees to pay for more inspectors puts the DEP in the position of maintaining their oversight operations by granting more gas drilling permits to those they are tasked with regulating.

Scheming or simply “more businesslike”, it does seem like unfortunate timing. According to State Impact’s updated PA Drilling App, gas drilling activity, particularly in Northeastern PA, has risen sharply to 2,200 actively producing unconventional gas wells.

The stakes have never been higher, yet Krancer’s answer to sharp budget cuts is more permits and governmental efficiency. Vitali is right to hold Krancer accountable. Playing politics with PA’s land, air and water would be a bigger gamble than Gambling.

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