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Kerry Plan Seeks Fuel Efficiency, Stability

Times Staff Writer

With petroleum prices surging to record heights, Sen. John F. Kerry outlined an ambitious plan Friday to lessen the nation’s dependence on foreign oil in the next 20 years and put Americans in more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

“Folks, we can do better,” the Democratic presidential hopeful said, unveiling his $30-billion plan before a crowd seated on hay bales at a family farm outside Kansas City, Mo.

Kerry’s proposal sets twin goals: that 20% of the nation’s electricity and 20% of its motor fuel come from alternative sources such as wind, solar power, soy-based diesel and corn-based ethanol by the year 2020.

To achieve that, he called for spending $1 billion a year over the next 10 years to help U.S. automakers retool their factories to build cleaner-burning vehicles.

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His plan would also provide tax breaks of as much as $5,000 for consumers who purchase those cars and trucks.

Anticipating criticism, the Massachusetts senator said he was not trying to forcibly downsize America’s motor pool.

“You want to drive a great big SUV? Terrific. Terrific. That’s America,” said Kerry, whose fleet of family cars includes sport utility vehicles. “But don’t you think it makes sense to be able to drive one that gets better fuel mileage and is more efficient and saves you money? That’s all. That’s all we’re trying to do.”

Kerry highlighted his proposals -- some old, some new -- during the eighth day of a cross-country barnstorming tour taking him from Boston, where he accepted the Democratic nomination last week, to California and up the West Coast into Oregon.

The setting Friday was the Smithville farm of Jim and Ruth Nelson in one of the most politically competitive stretches of closely divided Missouri. Four years ago, Al Gore beat George W. Bush by 25 votes out of nearly 80,000 cast in Clay County, a mix of farms, suburbs and a part of Kansas City. Overall, Bush carried the state, 50% to 47%.

The Nelsons grow corn and soybeans and raise cattle and a few horses on their 640-acre farm on Missouri’s western edge. About 30 minutes away, in Kansas City, Ford is producing the first American-made hybrid SUV, which will run on a combination of gasoline and electricity.

The blue-jean clad Kerry, standing before a backdrop of cornstalks, skipped over most of the particulars of his energy plan. Instead, he spoke in broad terms, saying the reliance on renewable energy sources, such as corn and soybeans, would help farmers’ pocketbooks while boosting the nation’s security.

Without using the word Iraq, Kerry suggested that President Bush’s foreign policy had driven up the cost of oil by an additional $8 to $15 a barrel -- a surcharge “entirely attributable to the instability of the world today.”

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“If we can run a more effective foreign policy ... we can tampen down the instability,” Kerry said, suggesting energy independence is even more important amid “the war on terror, where much of the focus of that war is in the Middle East.”

“Guess what else is in the Middle East?” Kerry said. “Oil.”

Along with pushing for more fuel-efficient vehicles, his plan proposes:

* Spending $5 billion over 10 years on a “clean fuels partnership” among government, agriculture and industry to promote research into fuels made from corn, soybeans, agricultural waste and other sources. Another $5 billion would promote jobs in clean-energy technologies.

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* Spending $10 billion to convert coal-fired utility plants into cleaner, more efficient facilities.

* Enacting efficiency standards and financial incentives to cut the government’s energy bill by 20% a year and to help states, cities, school districts and consumers do the same.

Kerry told the invited crowd of about 150 that his plan would be financed through existing oil and gas royalties, through extending a tax on corporate polluters and through stricter fuel-efficiency standards that would cut the government’s energy bill and provide $2 billion a year.

The Bush campaign denounced Kerry’s proposal, saying it would do precisely the opposite of what he claimed.

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“John Kerry’s record on energy is one of advocating policies that would raise energy prices across the board for working families and businesses, weaken the economy, lower disposable incomes, and cause massive job losses in key industries, as well as making America more dependent on foreign sources of energy,” the campaign said in a statement issued before Kerry spoke.

“His current efforts to fund renewable energy and conservation follow in large part exactly what President Bush is already doing, and echoes the president’s energy plan that Kerry worked to block.”

Vice President Dick Cheney said this week that the president’s energy plan -- long stalled in Congress -- would increase oil drilling and offer tax incentives to spur conservation, exploration and production.

“John Kerry and John Edwards voted no,” Cheney said at a campaign stop in Arkansas, citing what he called a significant difference between the Democrats and Republicans.

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Kerry has opposed the energy bill, in part because it would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Kerry has spoken for well over a year about lessening the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and has repeatedly pushed for increased funding to promote alternative and renewable energy sources.

He has also called for streamlining the more than 300 regulations that govern the distribution and sale of gasoline around the country.

But the issue has taken on renewed salience with oil trading at $45 a barrel, which experts say will soon translate to higher prices at the pumps.

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