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Biden taps environmental expert to head EPA’s air office as it tackles climate rules

The nomination of Joseph Goffman, a veteran of the agency, sets up a tough confirmation battle in the 50-50 Senate.

Joseph Goffman, principal deputy assistant administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Air and Radiation. (Mead Gruver/AP)
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President Biden on Tuesday nominated Joseph Goffman to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s air office, elevating a seasoned expert on the nation’s environmental laws and setting up a tough confirmation battle in the narrowly divided Senate.

Goffman, a veteran of the EPA under Barack Obama, has been leading the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation on an acting basis since January 2021. He has overseen the development of consequential climate change regulations such as tighter limits on tailpipe emissions from new cars and trucks. The air office also is crafting a major new rule to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, the country’s second-largest contributor to climate change.

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The nomination could garner criticism from Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which vets EPA nominees. Specifically, GOP senators will likely denounce Goffman’s writings from his time at Harvard Law School in between stints at EPA. The writings were often critical of the EPA’s efforts to dismantle environmental regulations under President Donald Trump.

With the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate, Goffman could still win confirmation if every Democrat supports him. But the timeline for moving the nomination is unclear, given a packed congressional agenda that includes passing a deal to fund the federal government, delivering aid to Ukraine after Russia’s unprovoked invasion, and holding confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“Being tapped by the president to serve the public and make a contribution is really the privilege of a lifetime,” Goffman said in an interview with The Post. “It was a privilege to be appointed as the principal deputy assistant administrator in January of last year, and it's that much more of a privilege to be offered this opportunity by the president.”

In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said that “since day one, Joe Goffman has delivered on the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda to tackle the climate crisis, protect communities from pollution, advance environmental justice, and ensure clean, breathable air for all.”

“We’re proud of President Biden’s nomination and we look forward to swift action from Congress on his confirmation,” Regan added.

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Goffman is no stranger to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, having served as the panel’s associate counsel in 1989 and 1990 and as Democratic chief counsel in 2017. In his earlier stint with the committee, he was chiefly responsible for crafting Title IV of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which established a program that largely eliminated acid rain, a major environmental threat.

Goffman first joined the EPA’s air office in 2009 at the outset of the Obama administration. He played a key role in crafting the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The Supreme Court took the surprise step in 2016 of staying the Clean Power Plan before it could take effect nationwide. After a federal appeals court scrapped the Trump administration’s weaker replacement rule last year, the Biden administration is drafting a new regulation from scratch.

Some climate activists fear that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court could limit the EPA’s authority to curb carbon dioxide emissions from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. The justices heard oral arguments last month in a challenge to the EPA’s climate authority brought by coal-mining companies and Republican-led states.

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Rich Gold, an attorney and lobbyist at the law firm Holland & Knight, said that Goffman’s deep familiarity with the legal basis of the power plant rules and other environmental regulations makes him a smart choice to helm the EPA’s air office.

Goffman is “an experienced hand in Washington environmental policymaking” who has a track record of “working with industry and the environmental community on greenhouse gas regulations for the electric utility industry as well as the auto sector,” Gold said.

When Trump took office in January 2017, Goffman left the EPA to become executive director of Harvard’s energy and environmental law program. As an academic, he wrote a number of pieces that were critical of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental policies, including a 2019 paper that asserted that the Trump EPA had made “dubious arguments” to justify its weaker power plant regulation.

Those assertions could resurface in Goffman’s confirmation hearings. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works panel, championed the Trump EPA’s power plant rule as a boon for West Virginia and other coal-rich states. Capito has already opposed three of Biden’s other nominees to top EPA posts because of concerns with the president’s climate agenda.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito is a key Republican to watch on environmental issues

“After setting the record for any incoming administration by taking 412 days to announce a nominee to this critical position, President Biden has chosen to nominate Joe Goffman,” Capito said in a statement Tuesday. “Mr. Goffman has served in the Biden administration in an unconfirmed role this entire time and is a familiar name from his tenure in the Obama administration as a key architect of the illegal Clean Power Plan. As always, I will judge this nominee like any other — based upon a holistic look at his professional record, writings and answers to my hearing questions.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement that “with clear eyes, I acknowledge that his nomination will likely face opposition by some in the Senate, but I look forward to working with my colleagues, sharing Joe’s qualifications and getting him confirmed.”

At least one well-known conservative industry voice on environmental regulations has praised Goffman’s nomination.

Goffman is “eminently qualified, and he should attract bipartisan support,” said Paul Noe, vice president for public policy at the American Forest & Paper Association, who has known Goffman for 27 years.

“Joe is a great choice to lead EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation,” Noe added. “It’s a big job, but he has the expertise and experience as well as the collaboration and problem-solving skills to be very successful. And Joe has demonstrated his ability to work with industry to find sustainable solutions.”

Besides the climate rule for the power sector, the EPA can pressure the nation’s dirtiest coal plants to shut down through other means. The agency in January issued a legal finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” to limit releases of mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plant smokestacks, potentially paving the way for tighter standards.

In addition, the agency is forging ahead with efforts to slash emissions from transportation, the country’s biggest source of carbon dioxide. The EPA on Monday moved to cut smog-forming pollution from heavy trucks, and Biden has directed the agency to issue greenhouse gas standards for new tractor-trailers, buses and other heavy-duty vehicles in the future.

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