This former EPA appointee wants to make climate change a winning issue for Trump

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2019

Mandy Gunasekara. (Courtesy of Mandy Gunasekara.)

Democratic contenders for president are trying to make climate change a top electoral issue. But one Trump appointee who recently left the Environmental Protection Agency wants to make sure it is a winning issue for her former boss instead.

Since leaving the EPA in February, Mandy Gunasekara formed what she calls a “pro-Trump nonprofit” called Energy 45 to help promote Trump’s energy agenda. She’s been busy writing op-ed for newspapers such as USA Today and appearing on television networks such as Fox News to be a counterweight to the chorus of critics bemoaning Trump administration efforts to dismantle its predecessor’s climate agenda.

“I think what Republicans are starting to understand is, we need to be better about communicating the good work that we’re doing,” Gunasekara, the former deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s air office, said in an interview Tuesday.

“I always say, we’re right on the policy, we’re right on the facts,” she added. “But what we’re not great at is conveying that.”

As Trump formally launched his reelection bid last night, he himself leaned into his energy record and touted the country’s position as the world’s No. 1 petroleum and natural gas producer during a rally in Orlando.

“We’ve ended the last administration’s cruel, and heartless war on American energy,” he told the crowd of supporters. “What they were doing to our energy should never be forgotten.”

Gunasekara is hardly the first Trump figure to leverage her time in government into media appearances. But few have been talking specifically about energy and environmental policy.

Now she and other Trump fans are gearing up to defend what is perhaps the EPA’s biggest new policy change yet: an overhaul of the Obama administration’s signature climate regulation for coal-fired power plants.

Gunasekara’s former boss, EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, is expected to finalize on Wednesday a rule empowering states to establish their own emission standards for electric generation.

The plan is projected to cut CO2 emissions roughly 34 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade-and-a-half, a pace that is likely slower than what the industry is already doing in the absence of any federal regulation.

But Gunasekara already has her talking points ready: She cites data from the International Energy Agency that indicates the United States has seen some of the largest decreases in overall greenhouse gas emissions, driven in large part by cheaper natural gas replacing coal in power generation rather than regulations.

The Obama administration, she said, “co-opted important agency missions as a means to expand the federal government.”

Still, the United States is still reducing emissions too slowly to help stave off some of the worst effects of climate change as described in a recent landmark United Nations report.

And Gunasekara is, unsurprisingly, also no fan for climate plans put forward by former vice president Joe Biden and other Democratic White House hopefuls, which she calls “different iterations of the Green New Deal.”

“The Green New Deal is premised more on socialism than anything you would find historically within the governing approach of America,” she said.

Gunasekara, who was also a former senior adviser to then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt and helped run the air and radiation office, was one of the architects of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which nearly every nation agreed to voluntarily cut heat-trapping emissions.

But she is perhaps best known for handing a snowball to another former boss, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), to prove that climate change had not ended winters. At the time, in 2015, she was working as counsel on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

For the moment, she is the boss of her own “one-woman show,” she said, splitting her time between Washington and Mississippi. Energy 45 is organized as a 501(c) (4), which is not required to disclose its donors.

“It’s not atypical to have a very small operation for this type of organization,” said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the movement of “dark money.”

Gunasekara declined to specify the contributors. “I would just define my support is coming from folks who align with the mission of the agency,” she said.

Her anonymous funding sources give critics fodder to attack her message.

“There are any number of polluter-backed groups in D.C. already trying to prop up Trump’s anti-public health agenda, so it’s hard to imagine what Pruitt’s associates add to the conversation other than a desperate desire to benefit themselves no matter who gets hurt,” said Adam Beitman, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.