President Donald Trump praised his own environmental record on Monday and attacked the Obama administration’s “relentless war” on U.S. energy. But a close look at his rhetoric reveals he is taking credit for pollution reductions that have taken place under previous presidents — and undertaking an aggressive agenda of weakening air and water pollution rules.
“From day one, my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet. We want the cleanest air, we want crystal clean water, and that’s what we’re doing and what we’re working on so hard,” he told a crowd that included several cabinet members in the East Room of the White House.
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The speech comes amid a reelection effort in which Trump’s environmental record is a prime point of attack for Democrats who have identified climate change as one of their signature issues. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend found that 62 percent of people disapprove of Trump’s work on climate change while just 29 percent approve.
Environmental advocates say the Trump administration’s track record shows his disregard for the work of the EPA, an agency he said during his campaign he would reduce to “little bits.”
“You can’t cover up two years of an abysmal environmental record with one speech,” said Christy Goldfuss, who headed the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama and is now senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Here is an examination of Trump’s most striking statements about his environmental record.
TRUMP: “One of the main messages of air pollution, particulate matters is six times lower here than the global average. We hear so much about what other countries and what everyone else is doing. Since 2000, our nation’s energy-related carbon emissions have declined more than any other country on earth.”
Air pollution in the U.S. has indeed plummeted since Congress last overhauled the Clean Air Act in 1990, at least judged by EPA data on several key pollutants. But that downward trend appears to have reversed itself in 2018, when greenhouse gases began rising again after falling to a 25-year low in 2017.
The Rhodium Group, an independent research group, said in May that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased by as much as 2.5 percent last year, while efforts to lessen carbon pollution by the utility industry slowed in 2018.
Trump has also flopped on clean air in general, according to an Associated Press analysisof EPA data. It shows a 15 percent increase in the number of high air pollution days in the two years of the Trump administration as compared with the last four years of the Obama administration.
That’s a setback from a long-term decline under the previous four presidents, which has led to emissions of sulfur dioxide – a component of acid rain – to fall 88 percent below 1990 levels, according to EPA data. Lead pollution in air is down 80 percent over the same period, and soot and nitrogen dioxide are down between 34 and 56 percent. Ground-level ozone, which causes smog, is down 22 percent.
But none of that is anything Trump can take credit for, his critics say.
“The quality of our air has gotten worse under this president after decades of improvement,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Donald Trump is the worst president in U.S. history for protecting the air and our climate.”
TRUMP: “More than 100 Democrats in Congress now support the so-called Green New Deal. Their plan is estimated to cost our economy nearly $100 trillion, a number unthinkable, a number not affordable even in the best of times.”
Trump was referring to Republicans’ claims that the Green New Deal resolution, a piece of legislation pushed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, would cost $93 trillion — a sum that would dwarf the combined economic output of every nation on Earth. But that figure was essentially pulled out of thin air, as POLITICOreported in March, and was calculated by a conservative think tank that made significant assumptions about how the plan would be implemented.
Even former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, whose think tank helped calculate the figure, has acknowledged that it’s impossible to say exactly how much the plan would cost.
“Is it billions or trillions?” he said in March. “Any precision past that is illusory.
Costs for environmental regulations are also often over estimated. One recent study cited the U.S. acid rain program, which was initially expected to cost $2.4 billion to $5 billion a year, but ultimately cost just $836 million while offering $100 billion in benefits annually.
TRUMP: “For the first time in nearly 30 years, we’re in the process of strengthening national drinking water standards to protect vulnerable children from lead and copper exposure. Something that has not been done and we’re doing it.”
The Trump administration has touted its work to reduce childhood exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxin, but has taken few concrete steps that weren’t legally mandated.
The Trump administration struggled to reconcile the need to replace millions of lead service lines around the country with the cost of doing so. EPA finally sent a proposal to the White House for review last month. EPA has said that rule will make a priority of replacing the most corrosive lines first and will require lead lines to be mapped, monitored and ultimately replaced over a 30-year period.
Late last month, the agency also finished a new rule tightening standards for lead dust on floors and window sills — a move required by court order. But environmental groups criticized the rule for not addressing requirements for tests of dust after rehabilitation.
NOT MENTIONED: Trump’s regulatory rollback of rules on power plants, vehicle efficiency and waters covered by federal law.
EPA says these three rules — which all replace stricter versions written by the Obama administration — conform to limits set by Congress while achieving environmental benefits. But even EPA’s own estimates say they do little to improve air and water quality, or could even lead to pollution increases.
“There is almost no proposed or final rule that has come out of the Trump EPA that will provide greater protection to public health, and many that would allow increases in air pollution, small or large,” Janet McCabe, former head of EPA’s air office and now assistant director of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute, said in a statement.
The power plant rule, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, was officially issued on Monday and requires coal-fired power plants to consider boosting their efficiency — which EPA estimates could reduce their carbon emissions by 1.5 percent.
That’s nowhere near the scale of greenhouse gas reductions from power plants that scientists say is needed by mid-century to help the world avoid the worst effects of climate change. And critics complained that some coal-fired power plants will actually be able to increase the total amount of carbon dioxide they emit if the rule allows them to run more frequently or remain operational longer.
The ACE rule also doesn’t touch natural gas power plants, which provided 35 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2018, compared to 27 percent from coal, according to theEnergy Information Administration. Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal but still contributes significantly to climate change.
The SAFE Vehicles rule, expected to be finished later this summer, would roll back greenhouse gas pollution standards for new vehicles starting with model year 2021. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said their proposed freeze would lead to an additional 872 million metric tons of carbon dioxide compared with the Obama standards — the equivalent of 185 million cars’ worth of emissions for one year. The agencies may ultimately choose to tighten the standards slightly, which could reduce the projected increase in pollution. EPA and NHTSA also projected the freeze would save 13,000 lives over a decade, although critics have questioned the agencies’ methodology.
And the rewrite of the Waters of the U.S. rule, scheduled to be finished by the end of the year, would dramatically scale back the number of streams, bogs, marshes and creeks subject to federal pollution protections at a time when nearly half of the country’s rivers and streams are in “poor biological condition,” according to EPA.
The agency has argued that the rule simply clarifies what waterways fall under federal power versus under state authority, and says the waters could still be subject to state protections. But 36 states have laws on the books limiting their ability to regulate more stringently than the federal government.