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Top EPA advisor leaves to head group lauding Paris exit, panning Green New Deal

Another Trump administration figure turns to lobbying for deregulation.

An oil tanker is anchored on the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish March 20, 2008 in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images
An oil tanker is anchored on the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish March 20, 2008 in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images

An advisor with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who has played a key role in President Donald Trump’s regulation rollbacks is leaving the agency to start an advocacy group to advance the president’s energy agenda.

In a letter sent to the White House Thursday, Mandy Gunasekara formally resigned her current position as principal deputy assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. That office is headed by Bill Wehrum, a former lobbyist who advocated for rolling back environmental protections prior to his appointment.

Without giving many details, Gunasekara said she would be forming a 501(c)(4) non-profit intended to defend “you [Trump] and the many energy, regulatory and economic successes of your bold and pragmatic agenda.” Her resignation is effective immediately.

Gunasekara’s new venture, Energy 45 Fund, is based in her home state and is headquartered out of Jackson, Mississippi. Listed as the founder and president, Gunasekara’s biography on the organization’s website touts her as the “chief architect” of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. It also credits her as orchestrating the Obama-era repeal of the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

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“President Trump’s bold domestic energy dominance agenda has brought both economic prosperity and cleaner air and water,” the website proclaims. “Energy 45 supports and promotes these policies as well as a broader push towards cooperative federalism.”

Pages on the website include “Defending the Trump Energy Agenda,” “Exposing Liberal Energy Fantasies,” “Promoting Positive Environmental Gains,” “Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord,” and “America First Environmentalism.” Each section includes small paragraphs praising Trump’s energy policies, with some taking aim at Democrats and Obama-era environmental efforts.

Promoting Trump’s “America First” approach to energy innovation, Energy 45 also takes aim at the Green New Deal touted by progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement. It comes at the same time as the release of a resolution on a Green New Deal by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on Thursday aimed at rapidly decarbonizing the U.S. economy and creating at least hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.

As the Energy 45 website reads: “America’s environmental achievements have been achieved in large part through private sector innovation leading to technological breakthroughs in energy extraction, development and use.”

“Continued environmental progress will be borne out of innovation, not oppressive regulations, government take-overs or ‘green new deals,'” it adds.

CREDIT: ENERGY45 FUND
CREDIT: ENERGY45 FUND
CREDIT: ENERGY45 FUND
CREDIT: ENERGY45 FUND

Prior to working for Wehrum and the EPA, Gunasekara served as counsel for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a conservative who has helped to shape the Trump administration’s energy policy. Inhofe is notably a close personal friend of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, also from Oklahoma, and has long questioned the established science on global warming.

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Under Inhofe, Gunasekara, who holds a J.D. from the University of Mississippi School of Law, worked on climate and environmental issues extensively. She previously worked as Senior Legislative Counsel for Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), where she similarly worked on environmental and energy efforts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Gunasekara’s individual lobbying profile shows around $20,000 relating to chemical and manufacturing lobbying. From 2014 to 2015, she worked for the National Association of Chemical Distributors and was paid to represent the industry.

During her time at the EPA, Gunasekara made headlines after expressing support to coal industry executives. During a meeting in May 2017, the then-EPA staffer told coal company representatives at the Eastern Fuel Buyers Conference that they had the support of the agency meant to oversee environmental protections.

“I’m here to talk to you to make sure what we’re doing in D.C. is beneficial for you,” Gunasekara said.

In addition to critiquing environmental groups like the Sierra Club at the time, Gunasekara also praised environmental rollbacks orchestrated by the Trump administration. The president has pledged he will revive the dying coal industry and restore jobs, something that has not been reflected in the more than two years since he took office. Coal plants continue to close, even as the EPA works to loosen regulations on the coal industry meant to protect the environment and public health.

“Now I’m at the EPA, I’m in a position where I can make a big difference and do things to help out and tear back the problems that stemmed from decisions of the last administration,” Gunasekara said during the 2017 conference.

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Gunasekara is part of a long trend of Trump administration officials moving between the government and the industries agencies like the EPA are meant to regulate. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler previously served as a coal lobbyist, and while he is arguably the most prominent former lobbyist in the administration, he is far from alone.

Downey Magallanes, the former deputy chief of staff to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left the department in August 2018 to work for the oil giant BP. Vincent DeVito, an energy advisor to Zinke, similarly left to join an oil and gas firm working in the Gulf of Mexico.

Numerous figures connected to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) also dot the administration. That Koch-backed think tank is linked to policies undermining climate science and environmental regulations.

Pruitt, meanwhile, has reportedly been working to set up a coal consulting firm.