Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Republican presidential contender John McCain gave a speech in Fresno, Calif., today calling for a $300 million prize, paid by the government, to be awarded to the person who can design a better electric car battery.

“This is one dollar for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. — a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency — and should deliver a power source at 30 percent of the current costs,” said McCain. The Republican candidate said the prize would be awarded for “the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost, and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

He said this would be part of a “Clean Car Challenge” for American automakers that he would create as president. “For every automaker who can sell a zero-emissions car, we will commit a $5,000 tax credit for each and every customer who buys that car.” For other vehicles, said McCain, the lower the carbon emissions, the higher the tax credit. Right now, we have a “hodgepodge” of tax credits for hybrids and natural-gas cars that range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $4,000, he said.

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McCain criticized the current enforcement of automobile fuel-efficiency standards, saying that the penalties for not meeting those standards “are too small to encourage innovation.” He also criticized government subsidies for corn-based ethanol as “playing favorites” and pledged to “level the playing field for all alcohol fuels.”

“Instead of playing favorites, our government should level the playing field for all alcohol fuels that break the monopoly of gasoline, lowering both gasoline prices and carbon emissions,” he said. “In the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure. From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success.”

McCain said that high subsidies for corn coupled with tariffs on things like sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil have hurt consumers and created a barrier to making other sources of ethanol available in the U.S. McCain opposes the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff currently in place for ethanol made from sugarcane in Brazil.

“As taxpayers, we foot the bill for the enormous subsides paid to corn producers,” said McCain. “And as consumers, we pay extra at the pump because of government barriers to cheaper products from abroad.”

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McCain’s criticism of ethanol policy comes on the same day that The New York Times published a critique of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s relationship to corn ethanol, an issue that McCain has been playing up as a difference between him and his opponent. As a senator from the country’s second-largest corn-producing state, Obama has been a supporter of corn ethanol as an alternative fuel. Obama has said that corn ethanol “ultimately helps our national security, because right now we’re sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth.”

Obama has said that he supports the tariff on foreign ethanol because it helps move the country toward “energy independence.” And in an interview with Grist, he noted that he supports corn ethanol in order to move the country toward other sources.

“Corn-starch ethanol provides a critically important bridge toward energy independence and corn remains a strong part of the domestic biofuels industry,” Obama told Grist. “But developing greater volumes of cellulosics is a critical next step in domestic biofuel development.”