Ask professional acquaintances about acting EPA air chief Joe Goffman, and adjectives like "smart" are accompanied by qualifiers like "careful," "cautious" and "strategic."
Those characteristics now face new tests as the veteran Clean Air Act lawyer occupies the center of a regulatory vortex with no recent parallel, tasked with both making good on the Biden administration's ambitious pledges and undoing a host of regulatory rollbacks undertaken under former President Trump.
"The pile of wreckage is huge," said Bruce Buckheit, a former EPA air enforcement chief who is now a consultant. "The work going forward is huge."
Among the forces in play: environmental groups insistent on the need for aggressive action to slash carbon emissions, existing policies in the way of the administration's objectives, and congressional Republicans and industry-allied organizations mobilizing in opposition. Already, one conservative group has accused Goffman in court papers of working with Democratic officeholders before rejoining the agency on a scheme to decarbonize the economy.
Goffman will be juggling these tasks while overseeing one of EPA's main operations. With some 1,700 employees, the Office of Air and Radiation is the largest and most influential of the agency's program bailiwicks.
In a sign of the stakes, President Biden used one of his first executive orders to lay out explicit timetables for replacement of Trump-era methane and vehicle fuel efficiency rules. More than a half-dozen other Trump-era air regulations are also up for scrutiny, including live-wire decisions to leave soot and ozone standards unchanged.
Buckheit is among those placing Goffman in the "smart" and "cautious" category. While Goffman won't be making the final decisions, the people above him "will get good analysis and good options," Buckheit said.
Goffman, whose formal title is acting assistant administrator, declined to be interviewed for this article but answered several written questions through a spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, he has already gotten some assists from federal judges.
Just before Biden took office in January, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out the Trump administration's replacement for the Clean Power Plan, which Goffman helped write when previously serving with the Obama administration in a landmark bid to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity plants (Climatewire, Jan. 20).
"YESSSSSS!!!!!!!!!" Goffman exulted on his once-chatty Twitter account, now largely mute except as a venue for highlighting musical tastes that range from New Orleans-flavored jazz to contemporary Estonian.
But if air office employees no longer have to grapple with the time-consuming mechanics of repealing the Trump-era replacement, known as the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, they still have to figure out what to put in its place.
"Sometimes the agency acts in a very risk-averse kind of way," said Ann Weeks, legal director for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, who was involved in the ACE rule litigation. "Certainly, the issue is too important for them not to act with courage."
Against a drumbeat of grim forecasts of climate change's impact, the same high-wire act lies ahead on the ultimate shape of long-term fuel efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks. Last month, EPA moved ahead with the first steps to reverse the Trump administration's weakening of those long-term targets. Its replacement strategy has yet to be unveiled.
At an online February panel discussion that marked one of Goffman's handful of public appearances thus far, Weeks hailed the Biden administration's start but added, "We need an all-of-the-above response on climate and clean air, and we need it yesterday."
To date, however, EPA's pace toward tomorrow has been measured, with its exact agenda still unclear.
Like other executive branch agencies, it has given the White House budget office a list of other Trump-era actions it plans to revisit by year's end but declined to make the roster public.
To Shannon Broome, an industry lawyer with the firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, Goffman's "thoughtful" approach is encouraging. At the Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Air Director John Walke pointed to newly proposed limits on the "superpollutants" known as hydrofluorocarbons that have crosscutting support (Greenwire, May 3). "I think they are wisely rationing and prioritizing to ensure there will be progress beyond the status quo ... with each action they take," Walke said.
But signs of heightened expectations that may be hard to satisfy are percolating elsewhere.
In two recent separate petitions to EPA, environmental groups have sought notable expansions of the agency's regulatory authority, both to limit farm-related methane emissions and pollution from oil and gas production that helps spawn lung-searing ozone (Greenwire, April 8).
In each instance, petitioners were motivated at least in part by the administration's self-proclaimed determination to confront climate change and upend a status quo that has long saddled low-income and minority communities with disproportionate exposure to pollution.
"Although previous administrations have failed to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions from industrial animal agriculture, we expect the Biden EPA to step up and grant the petition to prevent irreversible climate impacts and achieve environmental justice," Kristina Sinclair, food project fellow at Public Justice, a Washington nonprofit that's leading the push for tighter methane curbs on hog and dairy operations, said in an email.
EPA has traditionally been loath to clamp down on politically influential farmers and agribusiness; agency representatives have said only that the agency will review and respond to the petitions. Last month, Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation to block EPA regulation of methane and other emissions from livestock operations (E&E Daily, May 4).
Clean Air Act's 'law whisperer'
Goffman, 66, has been a fixture in Clean Air Act circles since the 1980s, whether on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund, as a staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, or at EPA.
A previous tour at the agency, running from late 2009 to early 2017, spanned almost all of the Obama administration. Then, he was associate assistant administrator for climate and senior counsel, with a portfolio that ranged from the Clean Power Plan to air toxics regulations, according to his LinkedIn profile.
A 2014 profile in E&E News dubbed Goffman the "law whisperer" for his work in teasing new regulatory authority out of the act (Greenwire, Jan. 22, 2014).
Before returning to EPA in January after serving on Biden's transition team for the agency, he was executive director of the Harvard Environmental & Energy Law Program. Now he is among a throng of Obama-era vets serving in the new administration. Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy is at the White House; former acting air head Janet McCabe, also deeply involved in the crafting of the Clean Power Plan, is EPA deputy administrator.
It's unclear whether Biden plans to nominate Goffman to hold his current job on a Senate-confirmed basis, despite having taken that step last month for his counterparts at EPA's water and chemicals offices (Greenwire, April 14). Another EPA representative, saying Goffman is "pleased to serve in his current role," punted the question to the White House. There, a spokesperson did not respond to an email.
A conservative research group has meanwhile alleged that Goffman consulted with Democratic state attorneys general while still at Harvard on how to regulate greenhouse gases under EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) umbrella.
"That proposition has long been understood to carry considerable risk," an attorney for the organization, known as Energy Policy Advocates, wrote in a February friend-of-the-court brief in litigation brought by states and environmental groups to scrap the Trump administration's decision to leave ozone standards unchanged. That collaboration, the organization alleged, was part of a strategy to transform the NAAQS system "into an unrecognizable and never intended framework for economy-wide decarbonization."
The group, based in Washington state, cited documents received through open records act requests. Under the NAAQS framework, EPA currently sets standards for only a half-dozen pollutants like ozone and soot.
Not long after the brief's filing, EPA retracted the Trump administration's denial of an environmental group's petition to broaden the framework to include greenhouse gases (Climatewire, March 17). Agency officials have so far given no indication of whether they now intend to grant the petition.
In an email forwarded through an EPA spokesperson, Goffman declined to comment on Energy Policy Advocates' allegations because they are entangled in pending litigation. "I can say that EPA will follow science and the law to ensure that the environment and public health are protected," he said.
A staunch believer in outreach, he accompanied his return to EPA with a brisk tempo of meetings with organizations ranging from the American Petroleum Institute to NRDC to associations representing state air quality regulators, according to copies of his work calendar obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and less detailed versions posted on an agency website.
Also on the list, in what one calendar entry describes as an "informational discussion," was a virtual meeting in February with Bill Wehrum, who ran the air office during part of Trump's term and oversaw development of many of the rollbacks that Goffman may have to unwind. Goffman, saying it was routine for incoming air office leaders to touch base with their predecessors, called the meeting "collegial and cordial."
Wehrum, who has since returned to private law practice, said in an email that they did not discuss substantive issues.
"I was pleased to have the chance to congratulate Joe on his return to EPA," he wrote. "I'm glad that OAR is in good hands."