EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claimed Monday that U.S. fossil fuels were "cleaner" than those from other countries, encouraging foreign customers to buy American oil, coal and natural gas.
He said domestic environmental laws on energy production were tougher than other countries, attempting to marry increasing awareness around climate change with the Trump administration's ambitions to expand U.S. energy exports.
"What the U.S. offers the world in terms of energy is our fossil fuels are extracted in a more environmentally conscious manner than anywhere else in the world," he said at the CERAWeek by IHS Markit energy conference in Houston. "If Europe wants to buy natural gas on the market place we produce our natural in a much cleaner way than Russia, for instance."
Wheeler's appearance comes as pressure is intensifying on the Trump administration to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So far, Wheeler and other administration officials have downplayed the urgency of addressing climate change.
Wheeler, a longtime Washington lobbyist whose clients included the coal sector, took direct aim at Democrats pushing the so-called Green New Deal, which aims to shift the U.S. energy sector and economy away from fossil fuels.
"There are a few loud voices calling for the dismantling of the U.S. fossil fuel production," Wheeler said. "Not only would this be dangerous for energy security and the national economy, it would be devastating for public health both here and abroad."
Climate scientists maintain that reducing global consumption of fossil fuels is essential to avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. A report by the United Nation's International Panel on Climate Change last year said without significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as 2040 countries could begin to see devastating side effects like food shortages and inundated coastlines.
Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, criticized Wheeler for playing on public fears while, "working to overturn numerous safeguards for health on everything from mercury in our water to soot in our air."
"I would laugh at his claim if his actions weren't so damaging to human health," he said.
Asked by CERAWeek moderator Daniel Yergin whether environmental issues had become more politicized since his first stint in the EPA as an attorney in the 1990s, Wheeler said they had.
"That's a shame because we're doing a lot of positive things on the environment," he said. "The environmental issue has turned into a large campaign issue and a large moneymaker for campaigns."