Joe Goffman is U.S. EPA's law whisperer. His specialty is teaching an old law to do new tricks.
As senior counsel in the Office of Air and Radiation, Goffman is gearing up the 1970 Clean Air Act to be the vehicle for curbing power plants' greenhouse gas emissions.
Goffman, 59, has spent much of his Washington career working with the venerable pollution law, twice traveling the circuit among the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, Capitol Hill and EPA.
The Philadelphia native helped lay the groundwork while at EDF for acid rain pollution curbs, moved to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 1989 to work on acid rain provisions in what became the landmark Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, then went to EPA to implement the new law.
He repeated the circuit in hopes of getting a law on the books for regulating heat-trapping emissions. In his second Hill stint, he was an aide to then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and worked again with the Environment and Public Works panel.
But with no congressional action likely anytime soon to address climate change, Goffman's back at EPA to help shape a new rule for working power plant fleets under a rarely used section of the Clean Air Act.
"I think he's followed the issues, whereas most people stay in one place and work on either the same or different issues," said Eileen Claussen, president of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, who oversaw the acid rain program as director of EPA's Office of Atmospheric Programs in the early 1990s.
In a recent interview, Goffman said he's motivated to see his work through by working through problems "wherever they take you."
"This is going to sound a little old-fashioned, but I really do have -- and have been operating with most of my adult life -- a sense of a vocation to public service," he said.
Goffman has a sense of vocation to the Clean Air Act. He's been working on the law and its associated regulations for 30 years, often focusing on problems that were not envisioned in the original law and thus require "new tools."
By the time he arrived in Washington from Yale Law School in 1979, the landmark environmental law was already at work, yielding results on a range of smokestack pollutants. But it was ill-designed in its current form to tackle the emerging issue of corrosive acid rain from power plant sulfur dioxide emissions.
Where rules for most regulated emissions required individual sources to act to avoid subjecting their neighbors to hefty doses of hazardous chemicals, the effort to halt acid rain posed unique regional challenges. The market-based solution championed by Goffman let emissions be reduced across industry sectors instead of going smokestack by smokestack. Emissions could be reduced across the fleet, providing environmental benefits and affording flexibility to industries.
"It turned out to be a really good opportunity for thinking about adding tools like emissions trading to the tools that were already being used under the Clean Air Act," Goffman recalled.
Clarinetist and 'gym rat'
Goffman's call to public service might stem from his childhood days in smoggy Philadelphia.
He was acutely aware, he said, of the damage done by car exhaust and industrial emissions to the health of Philadelphians, a state of affairs he called "unfair, almost undemocratic."
His sense of justice, he said, motivated his move to Yale Law School -- after he realized he wouldn't make it as a professional reed player.
"The high point of my music career was as a clarinetist in the Yale Concert Band that did a nifty European tour in 1976, when the American composer Charles Ives was all the rage both here and over there," he said in an email. Ives was an American modernist composer in the early 20th century.
Goffman still loves music and describes his tastes as "almost pathologically eclectic."
For example, the EPA air office's top attorney spent a recent week listening to the Afro-Brazilian percussion stylings of the Brazil-based Timbalada, alternating with jazz standards crooned by French-American jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant.
The week before that, it was Verdi and Bach.
He and his wife, Antonia -- a former tax lawyer who has since earned her Ph.D. in art history -- have three children. Their eldest son is a graduate student at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, studying energy economics. He also has a daughter at Portland, Ore.'s Reed College and another finishing high school.
What else about Goffman? He's an espresso aficionado and self-described "gym rat."
"I've perfected the skill of reading draft preambles on cardio equipment," he said.
At EDF, Goffman worked with economist Dan Dudek to develop a cap-and-trade proposal for acid rain.
He's credited with then helping to win the support of other environmentalists for what was then a novel approach to pollution control, and with doing the same for lawmakers and their staff when he moved from EDF to the Senate in 1989.
Goffman said the goal with the acid rain program was to achieve the greatest emissions reductions at the lowest cost.
"When you were doing environmental regulation, what you were always after was finding the right balance between ensuring that industry was held fully accountable for achieving the emissions reductions that were required, but at the same time giving as much flexibility as possible to find the most effective and low-cost ways of meeting those obligations," he said.
A market-based approach leaves industry the task of deciding how to meet that requirement without interfering with other objectives, he said.
The least-cost principle will also be part of EPA's quest for carbon dioxide reductions from power plants -- the centerpiece of President Obama's Climate Action Plan and Goffman's current mission at EPA.
"There were a lot of ways in which the lessons that could be learned by using new tools to deal with a problem like acid rain could be projected forward over time to address problems like CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions," Goffman said.
But he's cagy about whether that means EPA would again reach for a market-based approach to address greenhouse gases.
"Market-based programs are very useful in achieving that, but you can achieve the same balance between responsibility and flexibility through any number of regulatory tools," he said.
EPA is widely expected to allow states that participate in regional greenhouse gas programs to use those programs to comply. But the jury is out on what else the agency might do in the rule, which is due to be proposed by June 1 with a final rule out by June 2015.
EPA is using Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which has been used only a handful of times before for other rulemakings and which assigns the task of implementation to states. Industry and environmental advocates are already staking out conflicting positions about what they believe EPA can and can't require states to do, laying the groundwork for likely litigation (Greenwire, Oct. 7, 2013).
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, continue their hunt for ways to bar EPA from promulgating new climate-related rules. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) has introduced legislation to sharply curtail EPA's authority to craft the rules for new and existing power plants.
The political pressure, the tight deadline for putting out a rule and Obama's order that EPA pursue an unprecedented level of stakeholder engagement has kept Goffman hopping from one meeting to another with industry groups, environmentalists and state regulators to gather input on the rule and duck questions about EPA's plans.
His colleagues and others who've watched him work say Goffman's well suited to handle the pressure.
Dina Kruger, a former senior official at the EPA air office now in private practice, said Goffman's diverse career background and long history with the law make him equally skilled at both policy and politics.
"He was really good at both working through complex issues, but also working through the political and legal dimensions of them," she said. "Watching him work -- seeing how his mind works -- was great training in seeing what makes senior people so effective."
Those who know Goffman say his 30-plus years of working with electric utilities on air rules has prepared him for his current task, equipping him with both a deep knowledge of the Clean Air Act and the relationships he needs to craft a balanced rule.
"Joe knows a lot of people in the power sector," said David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center, noting that many of the same players just engaged with his office on a hazardous emissions rule finalized in 2012.
Goffman has led EPA's efforts to gather comments, complaints and recommendations on the rulemaking.
"While he has opinions of his own, I think he genuinely does listen and try to accommodate and adjust, which I think is very important in this case," said Claussen, Goffman's former EPA colleague who now leads the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Goffman met with Claussen and members of C2ES' Business Environmental Leadership Council -- which includes General Motors Co., Duke Energy Corp. and Alstom SA -- last April and October to discuss regulations.
"I think they are genuinely interested in hearing from people," Claussen said of EPA. "These rules are going to be challenged no matter what EPA does, so trying to get it right -- or as close to right as possible -- is very important here."
Hawkins said Goffman's intimate knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the acid rain trading program would serve him well now that he is taking on CO2 emissions from the same sources, especially if the new rule also calls for emissions averaging.
"Indeed, since both sources are regulated under both programs, it might be as simple as adding the word 'carbon dioxide' to a lot of the provisions of the existing acid rain accounting system," he said.
'The adult in the room'
Jeff Holmstead, who was air chief under President George W. Bush and now represents industry clients at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, first crossed pathes with Goffman in the late 1980s when Holmstead served at President George H.W. Bush's Council on Environmental Quality.
In the push for the Clean Air Act amendments, Holmstead said, Goffman was not perceived as wedded to the idea of using cap and trade to combat every pollution problem.
"I think just his in-depth knowledge of regulatory policy and regulatory programs makes him -- from the administration's perspective -- the ideal guy to be quarterbacking" the power plant push, Holmstead said.
Obama in his memorandum to EPA last June directed it to consider market-based approaches when drafting the guidance.
Kyle Danish, who represents industry clients for Van Ness Feldman, said Goffman's interest in market-based pollution controls appears to be "quite real and well-informed, and consistently applied."
Danish noted that Goffman returned to Capitol Hill to support Lieberman's Senate bid to enact a cap-and-trade bill for CO2.
On Lieberman's staff, Goffman was required to work with industry officials and with other lawmakers, Danish said. Lieberman worked with Republicans Sen. John McCain of Arizona and then-Sen. John Warner of Virginia on different versions of the legislation.
"I think that's the sort of perspective that allows him to be very much the adult in the room," Danish said.
Tim Profeta, the director of Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy, recruited Goffman to take over the climate change effort after he left Lieberman's office for Duke. Goffman was chosen in part, he said, because he was seen as someone who would balance environmental and economic interests.
"We really wanted to recruit somebody who had both the substantive ability to manage legislation but also the political ability to manage a diverse coalition like that," he said. "And Joe was very much that person."
Goffman, in turn, recruited David McIntosh to replace him on the climate portfolio when he took over as Lieberman's legislative director. But McIntosh, who is now a lobbyist with Siemens AG, says Goffman remained involved in the climate legislation, offering advice on policy and coalition building from his decades working on acid rain and other issues.
"What he primarily was was a source of enormous institutional knowledge, where the institution in question was the whole model of cap-and-trade legislation for air pollution," he said.
It is an expertise that EPA will now benefit from as it moves Clean Air Act rules to deal with CO2.
"He knows all of these people, and all of them know him on all sides of the issue," McIntosh said. "He's going to be a worker bee for getting it done."