Business leaders urge further progress on permit reform

© Shutterstock

Pennsylvania’s business community again urged state regulators to make changes to what some see as the maddening permitting process for major projects that will unleash the commonwealth’s energy and manufacturing economy.

This week’s hearing before the receptive House Republican Policy Committee repeated the idea that red tape manipulated by zealous environmentalists continued to hamstring the state’s economy, and that streamlining the process to ensure quicker approvals of pipelines and other such projects would be a slam-dunk for future expansion.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro had made permitting reform a plank in his campaign platform last year, which the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry saw as a positive sign that should move Pennsylvania higher in the rankings of business environments.

“We’re grateful to see business, labor, and both sides of the aisle agree it’s time to fix permitting,” said Kevin Sunday, the chamber’s director of government affairs. “We want Pennsylvania to be the No. 1 seed for new investment and opportunity. Unless and until we become more competitive from a tax and permitting standpoint, modernize our infrastructure, and ensure a skilled workforce, our bracket is going to stay busted.”

The idea that Pennsylvania’s seemingly endless permitting process had put the state at a competitive disadvantage was not new, but Wednesday’s testimony indicated there were signs of progress in approving projects that will bring new jobs to the state and upgrades to existing plants and infrastructure that will increase their capacity and efficiency. Last month, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) gave the green light to Transco’s Regional Energy Access Expansion Pipeline, which will allow the shipment of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region across seven counties.

“We have all the logistics we need; we have a skilled and qualified workforce, and we have energy,” said Michael J. Ford, secretary-treasurer for the Pennsylvania State Building and Construction Trades Council. “We can really take it to the next level, but we have to work together to get that done.”

The DEP has also requested a 9-percent increase in its budget to hire nearly 50 new employees, some of whom would be tasked with plowing through the backlog of permit requests. Acting DEP Secretary Richard Negrin said at a state Senate budget hearing, also on Wednesday, that his office racked up 18,000 hours of overtime last year while acting on some 27,000 permit applications and authorizations.

“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,” Negrin told the Senate Appropriation Committee.

The witnesses at the House session offered some specific steps the state should take beyond merely reinforcing the DEP. “Many times, investors are burning daylight and their limited capital waiting to get an okay from Harrisburg, endangering the planned projects and all of the jobs and economic dynamism that would come with them,” said David N. Taylor, president & CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association.

The proposals included:
• automatic approval of applications if they are not reviewed within the legal time limit;
• requiring permit fees to be reserved for permit processing;
• sheltering Pennsylvania businesses from regulations issued in other states, a not-so-veiled reference to the reviled Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative;
• requiring regulations that impose a significant economic cost on the citizenry to be approved by the General Assembly in order to go into effect.

The business community’s ideas will likely get a warm reception in the legislature, which has its eye on changes it considers necessary to keep Pennsylvania on the top of its game. “I firmly believe that we need to have the ability and fortitude to challenge the status quo,” said Committee Chairman Joshua D. Kail (R-15). “We cannot simply say that we want opportunity and transformation and then do nothing about details like the permitting process.”