WASHINGTON (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - United States President Donald Trump spoke up his administration's environmental record on Monday (July 8), 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".
Mr 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.
The President 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."
Mr 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 (EPA) administrator Andrew Wheeler.
Mr Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist who has played a lead role in crafting rollbacks of rules on climate change and clean air, and Mr Bernhardt is a former oil lobbyist, who has led the way in opening up the nation's public lands and waters to more drilling.
Mr Wheeler told reporters ahead of the event that key air pollutants have fallen around 70 per cent 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 Mr Trump took office, in fine particulate matter emissions like soot and smoke from the combustion of coal and oil.
The US 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.
America's carbon dioxide emissions also rose by 3.4 per cent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published in January by research firm Rhodium Group.
Mr Ken Cook, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, called Mr 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 Ms Jill Tauber, vice-president of litigation, climate and energy at Earthjustice, which has filed 120 lawsuits against the administration.
FOSSIL FUEL SUPERPOWER
The US has become the world's biggest oil and gas producer over the last couple of years, thanks mainly to a technology-led drilling boom.
Mr 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 US 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.
Mr 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. The rule would keep plants that use it to generate electricity open longer and significantly increase the nation's emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide.
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.
"There's this factoid out there that the US is a leader in reducing emissions. That is just not true," said Mr Richard Newell, the president of Resources for the Future, a non-profit, non-partisan environmental research organisation in Washington.
"It is disingenuous to both celebrate the decline in US CO2 emissions at the same time that one promotes the use of coal power. You can't have both."
The EPA is also expected to finalise another plan this summer that would abandon Mr Obama's strict regulations on planet-warming tailpipe pollution in automobiles, replacing them with a new rule that experts say is likely to function as a total repeal of the original regulation.
Polls show that Florida is one state where Republican voters rank environmental issues as a top concern. The reason, the polls have found, is that Florida is now on the front lines of climate change, as Miami and other cities experience consistent, damaging flooding as a result of sea level rise and a warming planet.
But Mr Trump made no mention of climate change, nor did he revisit a tendency to proudly sell himself as a champion of the coal industry and fossil fuels in general - even as they remain one of the chief causes of global warming.
'CHAMPION OF THE POLLUTERS'
This incongruous message of environmental action was so starkly at odds with Mr Trump's own record, that some critics found the moment almost surreal. "It is an utter farce for the President to talk about America's environmental leadership, when he has been a champion of the polluters," said Mr Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has written about environmental policy.
When asked whether Mr Trump still believed that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and whether windmills caused cancer, as the President has said, Mr Wheeler said that there were "positives and negatives" to all energy sources, and that administration officials were paying attention to this.
Mr Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and pollster, said he had presented Republican lawmakers with data in recent weeks that showed that the public - and particularly younger people - wanted to see action to safeguard the environment, but that the issue was seen as owned by Democrats.
"It is still not a top-five priority" among Republicans, Mr Luntz said. "These guys, they really do care, but they don't know how to get it done in this polarised environment."
Among the Democrats who criticised the President's speech on Monday was Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader. "Try as he might say otherwise," Mr Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor, "President Trump has proved himself probably the staunchest ally of the worst polluters, of any president we have ever had."