WASHINGTON — John McCain offered plans Monday to develop more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, drawing a warm welcome from energy analysts but caution from environmentalists, who warned that new vehicles might trade one problem for another if they get off of oil only to plug into coal-burning power plants.
The Republican presidential candidate's proposals to increase energy efficiency, rolled out in Fresno, Calif., came atop his proposal last week to boost supply by opening off-shore sites to oil drilling and sought to match environmental concerns to energy anxiety.
Among his proposals: a $300 million bounty to anyone who develops a powerful, long-lasting car battery to leap past pending hybrid or plug-in cars; tougher enforcement of mileage standards for cars and light trucks; a quicker transition to flex fuel vehicles that can use alcohol-based fuel rather than gasoline; and a $5,000 tax credit to consumers to spark development of a zero-emission car.
"In the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure," McCain said. "From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest successes."
Julie Bovey, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group, said it was "extremely positive" that McCain was talking about clean cars and seeking to extend car-battery power and life.
However, she said the environmental advocacy group had concerns about how the new battery-powered cars would be charged.
"When we think about batteries, the question is whether we are plugging it into a green grid or a grid powered by old-fashioned dirty coal plants or new nuclear plants," Bovey said. "If we plug it into green grids, then we've really got something."
While the country hasn't yet figured out what to do with nuclear waste, nuclear power doesn't create greenhouse-gas emissions as coal-burning power plants do.
Ed Kjaer, the director of electric transportation for Southern California Edison, called McCain's ideas good news. Southern California Edison provides electricity for 11 California counties and has more than 300 electric cars in its fleet.
"The battery technology is maturing very rapidly. 2010-2012 is the sweet spot for product launch in terms of battery electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles," Kjaer said. "We're seeing very good cycle life out of the batteries. Senator McCain's challenge is in the right direction."
McCain's latest energy proposal reflects how rapidly gasoline prices have risen to a top issue in the presidential campaign.
Democratic rival Barack Obama also proposes new energy-efficient technology, with a promise to spend $150 billion over 10 years to spark development.
McCain on Monday criticized America's research and development and incentives to wean itself from foreign oil as inadequate.
"Right now we have a hodgepodge of incentives for the purchase of fuel-efficient cars," he said. "Different hybrids and natural-gas cars carry different incentives, ranging from a few hundred dollars to four grand."
Obama's campaign dismissed McCain's ideas as too little and too much of a shift from the Arizona senator's record to be trusted.
"A bogus solution to a major problem," said Jason Furman, the economic policy director for Obama's campaign.
Obama aides also questioned the commitment behind McCain's election-year proposals, noting that he'd voted three times in recent years against raising mileage standards.
When reminded that McCain paired with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2002 to propose tough Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, Obama energy adviser Jason Grumet called it a "crisis of conscience" that didn't last.
"He was a CAFE advocate for a couple of months," Grumet said, "then he was a no show when it counted."
McCain, Obama on mileage standards