WASHINGTON--U.S. President Donald Trump boasted about his administration's environmental record on Monday, saying America can lead the world in fighting pollution at the same time it is promoting fossil fuels, in a speech green groups derided as "utter fantasy."
Trump, who has dismantled scores of environmental rules and rejected mainstream climate science since taking office, gave the speech at a time of growing national support for strong environmental protections. He is widely seen as vulnerable on that issue ahead of next year's presidential elections.
Trump said America was a leader in providing clean drinking water, had slashed air pollution and was cutting carbon emissions, all while bolstering industry and reducing regulation. "A strong economy is vital to maintaining a healthy environment," he said. "Punishing Americans is never the right way to produce a better environment or a better economy. We have rejected this failed approach and we are seeing great results."
Trump made the speech at the White House alongside Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Council on Environmental Quality chief Mary Neumayr and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler told reporters ahead of the event that key air pollutants have fallen around 70% since the 1970s, including "under Trump's watch."
EPA data show huge improvements in air quality in recent decades since the imposition of landmark environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. But they also show some increases since Trump took office, in fine particulate matter emissions like soot and smoke from the combustion of coal and oil.
The United States also slipped in the global environmental rankings to No. 27 in 2018 from 26th during the last year of the Obama administration, according to the Environmental Performance Index, a project by Yale and Columbia universities to measure national performance on air, water, forestry and other metrics.
Ken Cook, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, called Trump's speech utter fantasy. "There has never been a president who has actively pursued an agenda so hostile to the environment and public health at the behest of polluters than Mr. Trump," he said.
"It’s absurd for President Trump to claim any environmental credentials when his administration continues to drive a destructive pro-polluter agenda at the expense of the American people," said Jill Tauber, vice president of litigation, climate and energy at Earthjustice, which has filed 120 lawsuits against the administration.
The United States has become the world's biggest oil and gas producer over the last couple of years, thanks mainly to a technology-led drilling boom. Trump's administration has sought to pave the way for even more development by reducing regulatory red tape for the fossil fuels industries and expanding leasing on federal lands.
He has also vowed to pull the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, an international accord to fight global warming through carbon emissions cuts and a transformation of the world economy away from fossil fuels.
Trump's speech was scheduled in part to mark the EPA’s formal completion of the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule to encourage efficiency from coal-fired power plants. The ACE rule replaces the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, a signature climate change measure that would have forced utilities to shut down coal plants.
On Monday, the Clean Air Task Force filed suit on behalf of the American Lung Association and American Public Health Association to challenge the ACE.