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Senate panel approves Wolf’s pick for environmental secretary

A state senate panel has given its approval to Patrick McDonnell, Governor Tom Wolf's pick to run the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A state Senate panel has given its approval to Patrick McDonnell, Governor Tom Wolf's pick to run the state Department of Environmental Protection.

A state Senate panel has unanimously approved Governor Tom Wolf’s choice to lead the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Patrick McDonnell has already been on the job for nearly a year, as DEP’s Acting Secretary. He was appointed after the abrupt departure of his predecessor, John Quigley, who was ensnared in controversy over an angry email he sent to some environmental groups. The cabinet position has been marked with high turnover. McDonnell is the fifth person to lead the department in as many years.

McDonnell has spent his entire career in state government. Most of his time has been at DEP– in the Office of Pollution Prevention and most recently as Policy Director. Before that, he worked for the state Public Utility Commission. His first job was an internship in the Governor’s Office of Administration.

The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee approved McDonnell on Tuesday after about an hour of questioning. Many of the panel’s Republican members raised issues around how the DEP will implement new controls on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, through permit changes.

Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R- Butler) told McDonnell it seemed like DEP was trying to sidestep a longer oversight process laid out in Pennsylvania’s Regulatory Review Act.

“Can you explain to me why we’ve bypassed that normal process?” Hutchinson asked.

“We’ve had the authority to develop general permits under the air pollution control act for decades,” McDonnell responded. “We currently have 19 other general permits under the act.”

McDonnell was also questioned about the speed with which the agency processes permit applications– particularly over discrepancies between its various offices. DEP’s Southwest Regional Office has often been criticized for being too slow.

“It’s an absolute nightmare,” Sen. Don White (R- Armstrong) says of the southwest office. “It’s totally in a state of confusion. You don’t know who to talk to. You can’t take the response they give, and take it to the bank.”

McDonnell responded by saying the department needs more resources. He added that there is no silver bullet.

“I joked when I came into the office almost a year ago, I’d spend five minutes in the morning looking around for the button that fixes everything,” says McDonnell.

He adds part of the solution is better investments in technology, as well as holding discussion sessions with the regulated community, and streamlining paperwork.

“I’m challenging staff take a step back and say, ‘What are the requirements we need to deliver excellent environmental outcomes for the citizens of the commonwealth, as well as excellent service to the regulated community?’” says McDonnell

The full Senate is expected to take up his nomination in the next few days. He is widely expected to be confirmed.

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