When Mandy Gunasekara—IWF senior policy analyst, veteran political strategist, former Environmental Protection Agency Chief of Staff, and the woman who advised Donald Trump on exiting the Paris Accords—came home to Mississippi in 2018, the Newton County Appeal heralded the homecoming in a front-page story headlined “Decatur Native Brings Her Family Home.” 

The chatty article, written by a proud former school teacher of the seventh-generation Mississippian, bragged on Mandy as “a true-blue Mississippi girl” and glowingly depicted her career in Washington. Of course, the Newton County Appeal, being a Mississippi newspaper, didn’t skimp on details about Mandy’s overall illustriousness as a former Newton County Junior Miss (we’ll get to that) or her parents and grandparents. Mandy now lives in Oxford, Ms., where she and her husband, Surya, have an office on Oxford’s historic Square that is a common setting for Mandy’s many TV hits on national and local networks. Mandy is also a candidate for Public Service Commissioner for Mississippi’s Northern District. 

Mandy will launch IW’s Center for Energy Prosperity in February that has the mission of advancing our energy potential, protecting the environment, and promoting healthy communities. The Center will promote the idea that the key to environmental success is balance. “There’s been a politicization of the Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental movement, which came to a head during the Obama administration,” Mandy explains. “We’ve seen this being reimplemented in the Biden administration. So, our approach, and the approach that makes the most sense from a practical and legal perspective, is balance. We have got to balance the interests of reducing emissions and improving the environment without negatively impacting economic productivity, growth, and innovation. Extreme measures such as shutting down industries or banning technologies are a bad approach to environmental protection and come with a host of negative consequences, including lost jobs and gutted communities. The Center for Energy Prosperity will advocate for a better, more balanced way.”

Will advocates of a more balanced approach to the environment and energy have a hard fight on their hands? “In some respects, yes,” replies Mandy, “because the environmental movement has been defined by extremists that are well-funded and well-connected thanks to the support of leftist organizations that use fear and emotion to gin folks up. So that is what we are up against, but I believe many people are tired of the fearmongering, intrusive bans—like gas stoves and added costs. I also believe there is a desire for pragmatic, fact-based conversations about environmental challenges paired with practical solutions that will deliver tangible improvements.”

Although Mandy—short for Amanda—McGrevey, the daughter of an Air Force Colonel and a registered nurse, both native Mississippians, grew up all over, Decatur, Mississippi was always a constant. She spent summers there with her grandparents and, by the time she was in high school, her immediate family had resettled in Decatur. “Our Community is very fortunate to have good people putting Faith, Family, and Education at the forefront of our lives,” the town’s official website, obviously flying under the radar of the ACLU, boasts. Mandy went to public school and in her junior year successfully competed to become Newton County’s Junior Miss. The program, which awards scholarships, is now called Distinguished Young Women of Newton County.

“It provided participants who could demonstrate poise, interview skills, and public speaking with access to scholarships,” Mandy explains. “It also included a physical fitness and talent competition. I played the piano and performed a classical piece intertwined with singing some pretty popular songs. I had an amazing piano teacher who composed it for me to perform at Newton County and state.” She won for Newton County. Mandy graduated from Mississippi College and went on to law school at Ole Miss.

Mandy will launch IW’s Center for Energy Prosperity in February that has the mission of advancing our energy potential, protecting the environment, and promoting healthy communities.

It was on the first day of law school that she met Surya Gunasekara, son of a Sri Lankan father and American mother, who had grown up in Colorado. According to Surya, she was the first girl at Ole Miss who talked to him, and they married in 2009. The couple practice tax, trade, and environmental law through their consulting firm, Section VII Strategies, headquartered on the Square. They have a nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Mandy and the children spend a lot of time at Square Books, Jr., the children’s section of Oxford’s world-famous bookstore, competing in a variety of sports at the local park, or else hanging out with cousins. They live in a red house not too far from the Square. “I can’t think of a better place to raise my children,” Mandy says.

Mandy says she was originally “pulled up to Washington, D.C. because I was very interested in public service.” She had also pondered a career in the Air Force, but her father “suggested I try to find another way to pursue service for my country because I would never pass my nav test and that should not get in the way of what would otherwise be a very promising career.” 

She became interested in energy issues in 2009 when, still in law school, she was a summer intern for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. “I spent a lot of time looking up emissions profiles of various activities,” she recalls, “and so I cut my teeth doing side-by-side policy and legislative analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill that sought to establish a carbon tax, which is wildly unpopular with voters, because no one wants to sign up for a carbon tax or rather a tax on everything. So, during those debates in 2009, I was in the trenches doing a lot of research on it, and the more I learned, the more interested I became in the area.” She learned so much that she became an expert on the Clean Air Act. 

She has had a number of high-powered jobs, including Majority Counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for both Chairmen Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and John Barrasso. She was an advisor with West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito when Capito served as chairman of the Subcommittee Chair for Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. Mandy was signed on as senior counsel in the House of Representatives, where she helped Rep. Bob Latta create his energy and environment goals with the U.S. Committee on Energy and Commerce. She was a senior fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Mandy has done two stints at the EPA—the first as Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, and the second, as Chief of Staff, working under her old friend then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. In between these two tenures at the EPA, Mandy founded and ran Energy 45, a non-profit based in Jackson Mississippi that took as its mission spreading the news about the energy, environmental, and economic gains of the Trump administration. It’s from this position that she became a regular on TV, in print media, and all over the radio. A Washington Post story, published shortly before Mandy became EPA Chief of Staff, reported that she had “pushed” Donald Trump to remove the U.S. from the Paris Accords. 

“The Paris Agreement was a bad deal. President Trump knew it and I helped him fulfill his promise to get out over the finish line. The agreement instituted a lot of economic harm in the United States while giving a free pass to China and India that have no serious approach to environmental standards,” she argues. “At the end of the day, the Paris Agreement would have shipped U.S. productivity overseas which was bad for American workers, and it was also bad for the environment because the emissions profile of a factory in China is significantly worse than the emissions profile of a factory in the United States. 

“From an environmental perspective, you want more productivity to occur here in this country because we are the gold standard of environmental protection through the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and many other statutes that actually mean something. So, it was a bad deal all around and also came a billion-dollar price tag whereby taxpayer funds were sent to unchecked international accounts that have exorbitant administrative costs and do little to tangibly improve the environment.”

“For example, the Left is putting all of its energy eggs in the wind and solar basket,” Mandy says. “Wind and energy are not equipped from a technological perspective to provide stable energy needed to keep our energy systems going all the time.”

The key, as Mandy repeatedly emphasizes, is balance and strategic incrementalism. “We have made great strides in improving the environment, and much of this progress is attributed to our modern energy industry. As we have become a wealthier country, we have also become a cleaner country. Technological advancements in our energy industry have enabled our modern way of life  and are why we lead the world in reducing all manner of emissions. The single greatest thing we can do to improve the environment across the globe is to share our advanced energy technologies. The men and women of the U.S. energy industry have figured out the safest, most efficient ways to extract, refine, transport, and consume all manner of natural resources. Sharing the technologies that make this possible as well as their expertise could have a huge, positive impact.”

Mandy also emphasizes the importance of understanding our modern energy industry and all that it enables. “We should celebrate U.S. energy—coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewables. It’s very fashionable to criticize fossil energy right now, but the reality is that it provides 80 percent of our daily energy use and 60 percent of our electricity. Life would be much harder without it and as our understanding about the environmental impacts of energy use and affiliated development has grown, we have minimized its negative, external effects. Fossil fuels not only power our lives, but also produce the products we use every day. From the walls in our homes and the medicines in our cabinets to the soccer cleats and ballet slippers on our children.”  

Mandy emphasizes how this is all achievable with the right policies in place. “We must get away from extremists’ policies like the green new deal, net zero standards, and even the dishonestly-called Inflation Reduction Act that cause more economic harm than environmental good. For example, the Left is putting all of its energy eggs in the wind and solar basket. Wind and energy are not equipped from a technological perspective to provide stable energy needed to keep our energy systems going all the time. As a result, the strength of our power grid has downgraded for the first time in modern history as rolling blackouts have become commonplace and expensive energy bills continue to creep higher. And solar, in particular, is a boost to the Chinese economy because the minerals that go into the panels and turbines comes from Chinese-controlled mines that have poor environmental and labor and humanitarian standards. This is a point regularly ignored by the Left.”

The better path to energy and environmental policy will be one defined by conservation, doing more with less, and continuing to encourage innovation. 

As to growing anxiety and fear around the climate, Mandy says it’s unnecessary. “Many of the policies being pushed by the Left require the American people to accept a diminished state of independence, personal property rights, or swallow extra costs. Proponents often use fear as a means to scare people into accepting these bad policies, and climate is a favored boogie-man of the Left. It’s a complex issue. One goal of the new center is to give people access to facts.” 

Some of these same concerns underlie Mandy’s desire to serve on the Mississippi Public Service Commission. “I tell folks, Mississippi is a great state, and I intend to make it even better,” she says. “The bedrock of any economy is access to affordable energy, reliable internet, and safe water. The norther district has been represented by politicians making these promises for many years, but not actually following through. I will do that to make sure we continue to grow the economy and be a competitive state here in the South so when my kids grow up, they don’t feel the need to go to Huntsville, or to Birmingham, or to some of these other cities. They can look for that same opportunity here in Mississippi because we’ve been strategic about building a strong economy from the utility level on up.”

Looks like Mandy Gunasekara wants to promote prosperity and fact-based energy and environmental policy in the nation and closer to home, while raising children she clearly hopes will be eighth generation Mississippians, who’ve enjoyed the same opportunities she had.