President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during an event about the environment in the East Room of the White House, July 8, 2019.
President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during an event about the environment in the East Room of the White House, July 8, 2019.

VOA's Patsy Widakuswara and Elizabeth Cherneff contributed to this report.

WHITE HOUSE — In remarks widely panned by environmental organizations, U.S. President Donald Trump defended his record on the environment in a White House speech Monday.

"A strong economy is vital to maintaining a healthy environment," Trump said.

Radical environmental plans would not make the world cleaner, according to Trump — who pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord — but rather, he claimed, would put many Americans out of work.

Trump took another shot of the Green New Deal environmental plan, backed by a number of Democratic Party lawmakers, saying it would "cost our economy $100 trillion."

The president added that "I will not stand for it."

Trump did claim some environmental progress for his administration, predicting carbon emissions in the United States would drop this year and in 2020 and stating the government is now strengthening standards of lead and copper in drinking water for the first time in nearly 30 years.

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The U.S. ranking for "access to clean drinking water" is now No. 1 globally, he noted.

Trump called several members of his Cabinet to the lectern in the East Room to praise his administration's policies on the environment.

"Today we have the cleanest air on record," said Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a former lobbyist for the country's largest privately-owned coal company. "When other nations need help cleaning up their land, water and air they turn to us — not China, not Russia."

Trump received credit from his interior secretary, David Bernhardt, who is a former oil industry lobbyist, for repairing frayed federal-state relations on wildlife conservation.

Technological breakthroughs on clean energy are "literally cascading" across the country and around the world, according to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. 

"That's your record, President Trump," said Perry, a 2016 presidential primary rival of his boss.

Among others called to the podium by Trump was the owner of a bait-and-tackle shop in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

U.S. President Donald Trump applauds Bruce Hrobak, owner of Billy Bones Bait & Tackle, as he expresses his support for the president during an event in the East Room of the White House, July 8, 2019.

Bruce Hrobak praised the president for authorizing the repair of the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee and for policies that have led to reducing destructive marine algae.

"You bring my heart to warmth for everything you're doing," Hrobak said.

"That's better than any speechwriter I could get," the president replied. 

Environmentalists' criticism

Leading environmentalists not invited to the White House event were not impressed.

"President Trump has a political problem, one that he created and certainly didn't solve by today's surreal press event," according to Joe Bonfiglio, the president of EDF Action, which is the lobbying arm of the Environmental Defense Fund. "The Trump administration's record on the environment is beyond dismal and voters know it. It is one of the reasons suburban voters across the country elected politicians that would challenge the administration on climate change and a whole host of environmental policies."

Samantha Gross, a fellow with the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, is bothered by Trump's assertion that previous administrations had to choose between protecting the environment and growing the economy.

"I just find this completely untrue," Gross, a former director of the Energy Department's Office of International Climate and Clean Energy, told VOA. "Environmental improvement and economic growth has gone hand in hand for decades."

The executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, accuses the president of resorting to "greenhouse gaslighting the public to try and cover up the fact that he is the worst president in history for the environment, climate and public health."

Trump, according to Brune, has been relentlessly attacking the country's air, water, climate and public lands, "posing a threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans, and no speech he gives can ever change the reality of his actions."

White House statistics

EPA Administrator Wheeler disagrees.

"The Sierra Club is ignoring all the environmental progress this country has made," Wheeler responded when VOA asked him about the 127-year-old organization's criticism.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry speaks during an event touting the Trump administration's environmental policy in the East Room of the White House, July 8, 2019.

For example, Wheeler points out, the United States has "doubled our natural gas productions since 2000 but at the same time reduced our methane emissions by 16%."

Mary Neumayr, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House, defends what she calls a "practical, balanced approach" on environmental issues by Trump, that allows for supporting business growth nationwide.

Both Wheeler and Neumayr, on a conference call with reporters prior to the president's speech, were repeatedly questioned as to why they were citing statistics showing improvements since 1970, the year the EPA was established by then-President Richard Nixon.

Asked to cite more recent improvements, Wheeler pointed to "double-digit decreases in lead and sulfur dioxide" in the air in the United States during the Trump administration.

"We continue to clean up the air. We continue to clean up the water," Wheeler said.

But these assertions ring hollow to many environmentalists.

"It's not like the president or the administration has been subtle about their environmental agenda," said EDF Action's Bonfiglio. "President Trump has repeatedly and often gleefully taken to Twitter or appeared at rallies, railing against big things like the Paris climate agreement and little ones like energy-efficient light bulbs."