Prove your humanity

Legislation passed by the Senate would let energy companies bypass state agencies when applying for a permit to build.

It’s the latest attempt by Republican state lawmakers to speed up permitting by allowing outside parties to review applications, rather than state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection.

Critics say the move would violate federal and state laws.

Senate Bill 832 was initially written to create an independent energy office to provide nonpartisan analysis and help with planning for energy development.

But the most recent bill version would also create the Pennsylvania Opportunities With Energy Reliability (POWER) Authority, a governor-appointed board that could approve permits for energy development and electricity generation, without public hearings. The body could also waive regulations for projects.

The authority would hire a “qualified licensed professional” outside the government to review applications.

Small-scale energy projects, defined as those with a less than 25 megawatt capacity, could apply to the POWER Authority if the state agency the company first applied to has not made a decision within the time period provided for by statute, regulation or agency policy, or within 120 days, whichever comes first.

Companies hoping to build a large-scale energy project of greater than 25 mw capacity could apply directly to the authority for fast-track permitting.

Pennsylvania has a lot of energy. It’s the second-largest gas producer, behind Texas, and it’s the top electricity exporter in the country.

Bill sponsor Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) called it a proactive move to maintain Pennsylvania as an energy leader.

“There is no question we can capitalize on our state energy riches but first we need to stop apologizing for what we have,” Yaw said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has promised to speed up permitting times across government. He issued an executive order in January last year that required agencies to catalog all their permitting procedures. In November, he launched the PAyback initiative, which lets people and companies request a refund on permit applications that aren’t done in a timely manner.

SB 832 passed the GOP-controlled Senate on party lines and now goes to the Democratic-led House.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) objected to amendments added just before final passage.

“It creates a process to avoid complying with regulations of this commonwealth, which were duly adopted, and certain state laws, and creates a redundant and unnecessary new state office,” Costa said.

A spokeswoman for House Democratic leadership, Elizabeth Rementer, said they are reviewing the bill.

Shapiro’s office said it opposed the original bill but is still reviewing the new language.

“But we’re encouraged that Senate Republicans agree that we need to take action and we look forward to working together to create energy jobs, address climate change, and ensure we have safe, reliable power for the long-term,” said Shapiro spokesperson Manuel Bonder.

In his first year as governor, Josh Shapiro forged alliances with the gas industry, angering environmentalists

Shapiro recently proposed a statewide cap-and-trade program for power plants and an increase in Pennsylvania’s renewable energy portfolio. He has said he believes the state can address climate change while creating jobs, but takes an all-of-the-above energy strategy, which some environmentalists say conflicts with the need to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

David Hess, a former DEP Secretary under Republican administrations, critiqued the measure in a blog post on his environmental news website.

“This legislation is poorly thought out, poorly drafted and violates multiple federal and state laws using authority states do not have,” he said. “It violates the public’s trust that state government will protect Pennsylvania’s environment and public health.”

Hess also noted the bill was reclassified as an Administrative Code bill. That means that lawmakers could more easily roll it into must-pass budget legislation. The next state budget is due June 30.

Oil and gas industry approves

An oil and gas trade group supports the effort to speed up permitting.

“While Pennsylvania’s robust energy sector has powered our economy and everyday lives, policies and permitting processes are presenting significant roadblocks to critical projects. Timely, transparent and predictable permitting systems are sorely needed at the state and federal level to support energy and infrastructure development and unleash American energy,” said Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania.

Wissman pointed to the Mountain Valley and PennEast pipeline projects as examples of energy development affected by permitting delays. The Mountain Valley pipeline is nearing completion after nearly a decade of construction and legal battles. It will carry gas from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The PennEast pipeline, which would have transported natural gas from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, was canceled after that company said it could not get permits from New Jersey.

Republican lawmakers have introduced several bills over the last few sessions to allow third-parties to review permit applications. None have become law.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.