The Biden administration’s choice to head up the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of air and radiation faced sharp questioning during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday from coal state Republicans and a Democrat considered one of the Senate’s most ardent climate-action advocates.
Joseph Goffman, known for consensus building during three decades at the EPA and on Capitol Hill, nonetheless found himself at the center of the conflict between President Joe Biden’s historic goals to tackle climate change and the harsh political realities keeping them from being realized.
Goffman and his fellows at the Biden Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have taken so many actions to curb smog and haze-forming polluting from coal power stations that West Virginia and Wyoming politicians are up in arms. It may even threaten his nomination for assistant administrator. But they haven’t even begun to meet Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 50 percent eight years from now.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D.R.I.), held up a chart showing how the Biden administration was failing to address climate change. There are no EPA proposals yet for controlling power plant pollution. The standards for cars, light trucks, and buses that will reduce emissions than the ones set by President Barack Obama. There are no mandates to zero-emission vehicles as part of the pollution standard applicable to heavy trucks.
“We’re 16 months into this administration, and in what is widely believed to be a world climate crisis caused by carbon emissions,” Whitehouse said.
He noted how the Justice Department surged, after President Donald Trump’s administration, to prosecute criminal cases stemming from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“They stood up an operation that met the moment,” Whitehouse said, urging the EPA to adopt a similar crisis stance on climate change. “When I look at the regulatory output that you guys have to date, I think what’s called for is a regulatory surge of similar or greater focus.”
Under Fire from Congress & the Supreme Court
Goffman’s reputation for consensus was first established on Capitol Hill, where he worked as a Senate staffer to create the successful acid rain program Congress passed. He also helped craft economy-wide climate legislation in 2005 that—for a brief time—garnered bipartisan support in the Senate.
Later, as a top EPA official in the Obama administration, Goffman was one of the architects of the Clean Power Plan—Obama’s signature climate proposal, which set differing goals for reducing emissions for power plants in every state and allowed the states flexibility in meeting them.
Goffman committed to bringing the same consensus-building skills to his job as assistant EPA administrator. Since the start of the Biden Administration, he has served as principal deputy administrator under EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
“I believe that all Americans, no matter where they live or what they do for a living, deserve clean air to breathe, a secure job and healthy, safe communities in which to raise a family,” said Goffman. “If confirmed, I will approach our decision-making by bringing all stakeholders to the table and will do so with the integrity, transparency and accountability that Administrator Regan demands.”
As the confirmation hearing for Goffman made clear, the Biden EPA faces obstacles to its climate agenda at both the Supreme Court as in Congress.
Although the Obama Clean Power Plan never went into effect—the Supreme Court blocked it without ruling on its legality—Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, argued that the plan had a negative lasting impact on her state. “Its mere proposal sent a shock through the energy sector, and combined with other regulations, it contributed in my state to hopelessness, poverty, drug overdoses and despair,” she said.
In fact, West Virginia is currently seeking a Supreme Court decision that will clarify that the EPA has limited authority under the Clean Air Act to address greenhouse gas emissions.
When pressed by Capito over that legal question, Goffman declined to take a position but made clear that the EPA was waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling—expected some time before July—before proposing its own proposal to cut carbon pollution from power plants.
“Do you now have plan B already created in your office, to react to what the potential of a Supreme Court decision might be?” asked Capito.
“We have identified different options for responding,” Goffman responded, “depending on what the Supreme Court tells us the nature and contours of our authority are.”
The fact that Biden has not yet proposed a regulation for the power sector, which accounts for one-quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, drew Whitehouse’s ire. “I don’t subscribe to the formulation that you should not do anything” while waiting for the Supreme Court ruling, he said.
Flak from Republicans and a Democrat
Biden’s administration hoped it would not be required to rely on EPA regulation in order to address power plant pollution. After taking office, the administration sent Congress the national Clean Electricity Standard. But that was one of the first things that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) insisted on removing from Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better package.
Even after the White House dramatically scaled back Build Back Better—hoping to rely on a suite of clean-energy tax credits and other incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector—it still has not garnered Manchin’s approval and therefore does not have the votes to pass in the 50-50 Senate.
Manchin has been in negotiations for weeks with several other lawmakers over a further-scaled back Build Back Better package. However, it is unclear if those negotiations will yield any fruitful results or whether any legislation that emerges will contain the clean electric measures Manchin considers a threat to his state.
Meanwhile, politicians from the nation’s No. 1 coal state, Wyoming, also have been doing their part to block Biden’s climate agenda. Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) has placed a stop to Biden EPA nominees including Goffman using a parliamentary process that allows any senators to block nominations. At Goffman’s hearing, Lummis made clear she objected to EPA’s effort to curb pollution from coal power in her state to address regional haze issues as well as cross-state pollution.
“Air-quality models that are developed for eastern states need to be recalibrated for the western states,” Lummis said.
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Goffman stated that the EPA takes into account the unique topography and atmospheric dynamics of western states and that the agency is currently working to find a solution for the Wyoming dispute.
“I believe we’re very, very close to a resolution with the state and the utility that will allow critical facilities in Wyoming to continue to operate while making the emissions reductions that have been identified as required,” he said.
Goffman acknowledged that fossil fuel states are concerned, but he also sought to highlight the strong climate action taken by the Biden Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Goffman cited the elimination of HFCs, potent greenhouse gases, and the development methane rules that cover the oil-and-gas industry.
“I think we’ve set a pace for addressing greenhouse gas emissions using our authority that, at least to the extent that I have anything to do with it, we will be able to maintain and even exceed in the coming 12 months,” Goffman said.
For Goffman’s nomination to go forward to a vote, Lummis will have to agree to lift her hold, as will Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who also has a hold on EPA nominees over what he said is the agency’s failure to approve carbon capture wells in his state. Goffman will need at most 50 votes to be confirmed if he can overcome these hurdles.
Source: Inside Climate News