Wolf proposes to speed up Pa. gas-well permit reviews, hike fees

Gov. Wolf on Friday proposed measures to reduce vexing backlogs in Pennsylvania’s approval process for new natural-gas well permits, saying the improvements would require the state to spend $2.5 million more to hire 35 new environmental regulators.

Wolf, at a news conference in Harrisburg, said he would ask the Assembly to boost the Department of Environmental Protection’s budget to make the “long-overdue” hires. The governor’s office said it would propose to increase new well-permit fees from $5,000 to $12,500, though that would require a formal regulatory rule-making process that typically takes about 18 months.

In a “white paper,” Wolf’s office said DEP’s oil and gas staff has decreased from 226 to 190 because of budget cuts. The review staff in the busy southwest district office, the most frequent object of industry complaints, was down 43 percent.

The governor said his objective was to enhance environmental protection, “and the way you do that is not by dragging your feet — it is not by making people really angry on the industry side with the time it takes to get permits.”

Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Spigelmyer praised Wolf and DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

“On behalf of our members, we have worked with the administration and General Assembly to elevate the impact that permit delays and inconsistencies within the department have had on Pennsylvania’s ability to attract capital and retain jobs,” Spiegelmyer said in a statement.

“We’ll continue to engage with policymakers on ways to enhance Pennsylvania’s business climate and maximize the shared benefits of natural gas development.”

The DEP said that in the last six months it has reduced the backlog for erosion-control permits and well permits by half, or about 6,000 applications, and had reduced the review time for an erosion-control permit by over 220 days to under 100 days. Every new drilling or pipeline project requires an erosion-control permit before earth is disturbed.

DEP’s permit-review process is paid from fees, but revenue has fallen as the initial rush of Marcellus Shale drilling slowed. The program is currently running a $600,000 monthly deficit.