Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
Chief environmental officials in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration said one of their primary priorities during the next four years will be to review and speed up Virginia’s permitting processes.
“Taking a look at permitting is one of the priorities for this secretariat,” said Acting Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles Wednesday during a forum on corporate sustainability, energy and the environment hosted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Similarly, Department of Environmental Quality Director Mike Rolband said his “number-one task is to make DEQ processes more clear and hopefully by clarifying things we can expedite the permitting process.”
Environmental permitting has become an increasingly contentious political issue in Virginia, where resistance to the Mountain Valley and now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipelines has led to not only slowdowns in the issuance of state permits but numerous successful challenges in federal court to those approvals.
One permit denial by the State Air Pollution Control Board this December related to a proposed natural gas compressor station was a primary driver of the General Assembly’s decision to strip permitting authority from Virginia’s decades-old citizen air and water boards. It was the air board’s first permit denial in 20 years.
Rolband said Wednesday that last year DEQ issued more than 24,000 air, water and land use permits.
However, regulated businesses have complained that Virginia’s environmental permitting processes are too slow and lack certainty, discouraging economic development. The need to “streamline regulatory and permitting processes” was one of the recommendations included in the Virginia Chamber’s Blueprint Virginia 2030, a long-range plan for strengthening the state’s business climate.
Voyles said DEQ would be the first agency within the natural resources secretariat to launch a comprehensive effort to reform the permitting process. “Lessons learned” at DEQ will then be applied “across, one, the secretariat into our other agencies and two, eventually across the entire government.”
“A lot of that is bringing more transparency and reliability to the permitting process. Part of this is it’s really ensuring that we get to an answer in a reasonable time frame,” he said. But, he added, “This is not getting to yes. This is getting to an answer.”
Rolband also outlined plans for the development of a public online platform that would track the progress of all pending DEQ permits.
“We’re going to track where it is, because right now it’s a black box for everybody, for the public and the permittee,” he told the listeners at Wednesday’s forum. “You apply for a permit and you don’t know what happened to it. And often it gets stuck somewhere. So I want to have a public online platform where anybody can find out where the permit is in the process.”
Rolband said DEQ has already chosen two full-time employees to work on the project, called the Permitting Enhancement and Evaluation Platform, and plans to hire a contractor for additional support.
“That I think is going to be probably the most powerful tool or initiative that we implement,” he said.
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