EPA air nominee faces high-stakes confirmation hearing

By Sean Reilly | 05/23/2022 06:42 AM EDT

Joe Goffman enjoys union, environmentalist and industry backing, but how many Republicans will support him?

Photo collage. Joe Goffman.

The president nominated Joe Goffman to lead EPA's air office. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); Francis Chung/E&E News (EPA building); Harvard Law School (Goffman); @JosephGoffman/Twitter; EPA (Goffman)

As Joe Goffman prepares for a pivotal Senate hearing this week on his bid to head EPA’s air office, some traditional alliances have scrambled in his favor, courtesy of both the politics of climate change and relationships forged over decades in the trenches of federal environmental policymaking.

Whether they’re scrambled enough for him to win Senate confirmation remains an unsettled question.

“He’s a respected voice, he certainly is qualified,” said Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell LLP, a law and lobbying firm that represents industry clients. “Who knows what the politics are going to be?”


Goffman has been acting head of the Office of Air and Radiation since the Biden administration’s first day. Formally nominated two months ago to hold the job on a lasting basis, he will go before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday morning.

While some Democrats may lob questions about the adequacy of Biden administration efforts to combat global warming, they are expected to give Goffman a generally warm welcome.

Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.), for example, plans to highlight Goffman’s “deeply respected and highly accomplished record,” according to an aide, and will stress the importance of his job in protecting Americans “from the climate crisis’s worsening impacts on health and economic security.”

Goffman will enter the hearing room with the surprise endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America, a union that has opposed policies to wean the U.S. off of coal as a fuel source (Greenwire, May 20).

Also backing him are a host of environmental organizations and several major industry trade groups.

But with the committee split 10-10 along party lines, Goffman’s nomination will need at least one Republican vote coupled with unanimous Democratic support to quickly advance to the full Senate. There’s no immediate sign of where that vote will come from.

While the mine workers remain a force in coal-rich West Virginia, their backing for Goffman’s candidacy appears to have done nothing to sway the stance of the panel’s top Republican.

While reiterating that she would take a “holistic” view of Goffman’s record, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito also repeated a criticism made when his nomination was announced in March as she labeled him “a key architect of the illegal Clean Power Plan” (E&E Daily, March 9).

The reference is to a signature Obama-era initiative intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. While the Supreme Court stayed the plan’s implementation in 2016, it was never found to be unlawful. In addition, Capito said, EPA Administrator Michael Regan “has stated that even without new law, EPA will ‘push the envelope’ on new regulations, which Mr. Goffman will have a lot to answer for.”

Capito’s statement also served as a reminder of Goffman’s enduring involvement in policymaking. Now in his third tour at EPA, he worked at the agency in the early 1990s on acid rain issues and then served as associate assistant administrator for climate during most of the Obama administration.

After leaving EPA in early 2017, he spent about nine months as Democratic chief counsel for the EPW Committee before decamping to run an energy and environmental law program at Harvard University.

EPA press aides declined to make Goffman available for an interview last week, but those deep establishment roots may have paid off in winning the mine workers’ backing.

In a letter to Carper and Capito last week, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts cited an acquaintance with Goffman dating back to the 1980s. And the shifting economics of the power industry show up in the decision of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, to also support his nomination.

“We are committed to getting the energy we provide as clean as we can as fast as we can, without compromising on the reliability and the affordability that our customers value,” institute President Tom Kuhn wrote in a separate letter earlier this month. “Upon his confirmation, we look forward to working with Mr. Goffman on clean energy, climate, environmental justice and just transition issues.”

With the Supreme Court soon expected to rule in a challenge brought by West Virginia to EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, EEI and environmental groups are “on the same side of the case,” John Walke, clean air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.

Goffman’s nomination “is great news for everyone who wants cleaner air and a safer climate,” officials at the Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC and almost two dozen other groups wrote on Friday. “He has dedicated his career to the protection of human health and the environment and understands the urgency of the climate crisis.”

But from a political vantage point, that work can be a drawback. Among other EPW Republicans is Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis. In a standoff that has now lasted more than four months, Lummis has holds on the nominations of Goffman and two other EPA nominees over the agency’s approach to cutting haze-forming emissions at her state’s largest coal-fired power plant (E&E Daily, Jan. 14).

A Lummis spokesperson confirmed Friday that those holds remain in effect but did not immediately reply when asked whether the senator plans to raise the issue at Wednesday’s hearing. Another potential obstacle is a second blanket hold on EPA nominees by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). Cassidy, who is not a committee member, wants Louisiana to have lead regulatory responsibility for permitting carbon capture wells.

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, May 25, at 10 a.m. in 406 Dirksen and via webcast.

Witness: Joe Goffman.

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.