JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump sought to claim the mantle of environmental steward on Tuesday as he announced an expansion of a ban on offshore drilling and highlighted conservation projects in Florida. But his administration has overturned or weakened numerous regulations meant to protect air and water quality and lands essential for imperiled species.
Trump spoke beside the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, lambasting Democrat Joe Biden's agenda at the taxpayer-funded event. The trip comes as Trump steps up his travel to battleground states eight weeks before the election. From Florida, he was headed for a campaign rally in North Carolina, another must-win state for his reelection.
Trump announced he was extending and expanding a ban on new offshore drilling sites off the Florida coast as well as Georgia and South Carolina. The existing moratorium covers the Gulf of Mexico, and Trump said the new one would also cover the Atlantic coast — a significant political concern in coastal states like Florida.
"My administration's proving everyday that we can improve our environment while creating millions of high-paying jobs," Trump said. He claimed Biden's environmental plans would "destroy America's middle class while giving a free pass to the world's worst foreign polluters."
The announcement could open the president up to charges of an election-year flip-flop given that he acted in January 2018 to vastly expand offshore drilling from the Atlantic to the Arctic oceans.
Trump offered himself as the greatest environmental president since Theodore Roosevelt.
"Who would have thought. Trump is the great environmentalist?" the president said. "You hear that? That's good, and I am. I am. I believe strongly in it."
Trump, though, has rolled back numerous regulations meant to protect the environment, from power plant emissions to auto fuel standards to clean water. He withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, a global agreement to address the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
The Trump administration has made the environment a primary target of his deregulatory push, eliminating or weakening dozens of rules that protect the nation's air and water quality and lands essential for imperiled species while reversing Obama-era initiatives to fight climate change.
Trump replaced Obama's Clean Power Plan aimed at slashing greenhouse gas pollution from electric plants and eased automobile fuel economy standards. Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency stripped federal protection from millions of acres of streams and wetlands. He lifted restrictions on oil and gas exploration in sensitive areas and shortened environmental reviews of construction projects such as highways and pipelines.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a longtime Trump ally who has opposed the administration's drilling exploration expansion plans, applauded Tuesday's announcement as "good news" but warned "we must remain vigilant in the conservation and preservation of our coastline."
"South Carolina is blessed with the most beautiful and pristine beaches, sea islands, and marshes in the nation," McMaster said. "Seismic testing and offshore drilling threatens their health and jeopardizes the future of our state's $24 billion tourism industry."
Soon after the initial expansion plans were floated early in Trump's term, McMaster advocated against drilling and met with then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to seek an exemption for the state. McMaster has also signed into law a state budget proviso prohibiting state or local government funds from being used for offshore oil and gas-related activities.
Trump said he had also been discussing extending the moratorium with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who greeted Trump at the airport in West Palm Beach and attended the Jupiter event.
"This protects your beautiful gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come," Trump told the audience of about 200 people, including federal and state officials and members of Congress. Few wore face coverings or practiced social distancing.
Environmental groups and former EPA chiefs from both parties have criticized Trump's environmental record. Current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, defended it last week in a speech commemorating the agency's 50th anniversary. He contended Trump had reined in an agency that had lost sight of its core mission. A second term would bring more cleanups of Superfund toxic waste dumps and restoration of polluted industrial sites, which drew renewed emphasis during Trump's first term, Wheeler said.
Associated Press writer John Flesher in Traverse City, Michigan, Meg Kinnard in Charleston, South Carolina, and Darlene Superville and Kevin Freking in Washington, contributed to this report.