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EPA official lays out priorities, takes feedback at coal industry conference

At a coal conference in Florida, a top official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laid out a six-point priority list for rolling back air regulations and aimed to tamp down reports of internal strife hampering the agency.

The agency is working to roll back environmental regulations, particularly those implemented by the Obama administration, said Mandy Gunasekara, principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA. Speaking before a group of industry representatives affiliated with the coal industry at the Eastern Fuel Buyers conference May 11, Gunasekara emphasized the agency is focused on the "durability" of its actions, constructing rollbacks or replacements in a way that will stand up to legal scrutiny.

"I don't necessarily care if what I do looks good on a bumper sticker," Gunasekara said. "I care if what I do actually makes a difference and withstands any administration change."

The EPA has faced heavy scrutiny from environmental groups who have said Administrator Scott Pruitt is prioritizing the needs of industry over public health. Speakers at the conference, including Consol Energy Inc. CEO Jimmy Brock, said the administration has been easier to work with and noted a recent visit Pruitt made to a Consol coal mine in Pennsylvania.

Gunasekara described her visit, a return to the conference from a year ago when she was a senior policy adviser at the EPA, as an attempt to have an honest dialogue and get feedback from the industry. She said she wanted to know "how are we doing and what is it we can do better" at the EPA.

The agency has "made great progress in advancing the president's agenda in the environmental space," Gunasekara said, pointing to 59 deregulatory actions in the agency's Spring 2018 Regulatory Agenda. Gunasekara highlighted six priorities for the agency: repealing the Clean Power plan; taking a "serious look" at the role of co-benefits in Mercury and Air Toxics regulation; making changes to an Obama-era methane emissions rule; changing rules for new sources of emissions; tweaking National Ambient Air Quality Standards; and working on "feasible" greenhouse gas standards for vehicles.

Many of the six priorities are also at the top of mind for coal producers hoping regulatory changes could result in building new power plants, or at the least, allow existing plants to be upgraded without uncertainty about whether that investment will go to waste. The agency's changes have hit a number of hurdles as environmentalists and other groups have fought back.

For example, repealing the Clean Power Plan is not as simple as throwing out the rule, Gunasekara said, as it would be "creating a void" the EPA would have to fill due to the structure of the Clean Air Act and decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gunasekara also noted that while the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule has already made an impact, with power plants closing or retrofitting equipment to comply, the agency has spent a lot of time thinking about the role that co-benefits of reducing other air pollutants played in a cost-benefit analysis of the rule. The rule was aimed at reducing mercury pollution, but the EPA included particulate matter reductions that would also occur in calculating the benefit of the rule, a precedent she said the EPA is now thinking about reversing.

Controversies around Pruitt's travel and use of taxpayer money have been a focus of congressional hearings, but so has morale of career EPA staff who reportedly said they have been ignored in the new EPA's regulatory process. Gunasekara denied that was the case.

"There is shadow that is attempting to be cast over the agency that simply does not exist," Gunasekara said. "We work every day with our career professionals. We have a great working relationship with them."