With crude oil prices hitting new highs, Sen. John F. Kerry said Friday that the United States should set a goal of deriving 20 percent of its motor fuel from domestic sources such as hydrogen, ethanol and biodiesel by 2020.
At a large, picturesque family-owned farm here in politically divided Clay County, the Democratic presidential candidate proposed spending $30 billion over the next 10 years on a mix of grants, tax incentives and government mandates to expedite the creation of a new generation of automobiles and sport-utility vehicles and renewable fuels produced in the United States to power them.
Kerry has been talking about energy independence since the primaries, and the only new spending program he offered Friday was a $5 billion program -- called the "clean fuels partnership" -- to encourage the production of new and often cleaner-burning fuels and vehicles. The Democratic ticket announced that it will lead by example: Kerry said he and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), are each on a waiting list to purchase the 2005 Ford Escape hybrid, which runs on gasoline and electricity. Sticker price: $27,000 and up, according to Ford.
Kerry came under fire earlier in the campaign for claiming he did not own a gas-guzzling SUV, when it turned out his wife did.
Alternative fuels are "America's next great wave of discovery," Kerry said on the second day of a whistle-stop train tour headed west. It's "good health practice, good farming practice, good economic policy and good national security policy." With farmers and their families, a mix of young and old, sitting on hay bales, Kerry said, "We're not just going to make this feasible, we want to people to be excited about it -- this is the future."
Critics say it will take more than excitement to meet Kerry's goal: This year, less than 1.5 percent of motor fuel is coming from alternative sources, according to the Energy Information Administration. These fuels and the vehicles powered by them are often very costly to produce. Consumers often complain about inferior performance of alternative-fuel vehicles, a technology still in its infancy. There is little existing infrastructure, such as filling stations offering fuels such as ethanol or biodiesel.
Automakers and oil producers are also two of the better-funded and most influential business sectors, with long track records of beating back efforts in Washington to raise mileage standards for vehicles and create alternatives to oil.
Still, President Bush and Kerry consider energy one of the central issues of this election, aides say. The twin threats of higher oil prices and unrest in the Middle East, the source of a large portion of the nation's oil, are stirring anxiety among many voters, especially lower-income Americans hit hardest by rising prices at the pump, polls show. More than 60 percent of U.S oil is imported -- roughly one-quarter of it from the Middle East. Oil prices neared a record high of $45 a 42-gallon barrel on Friday.
Kerry's aides believe the Democratic ticket is ideally positioned to benefit from this anxiety because Bush's energy plan was rejected by Congress (with the help of Edwards and Kerry) and the war in Iraq is serving as a constant reminder of how Bush's Middle East policies are contributing to higher oil and gas prices.
"We know the impact [oil] can have on our economy as a whole. We know what it can do to our security because as long as we are dependent on oil from the Middle East, it tends to drive our policy in that part of the world," Edwards said.
Moreover, many of the battleground states are in the Midwest, where proposals to turn corn, soy and biomass into fuel are welcome news to farmers getting lower prices for their crops and paying more to produce them. Studies show production costs are outpacing increases in crop prices from many farmers.
Here in Clay County, where Al Gore defeated Bush by just 25 votes in 2000, many farmers invited to the event complained about falling prices for grain and competition from larger agribusinesses and foreign countries. As one farmer noted during the question-and-answer session, just talking about family farming wins votes in these parts. Kerry and Edwards did not disappoint. They put on their blue jeans, rolled up their sleeves and struck folksy tones in a long conversation with fewer than 100 locals surrounded by grazing horses and rolling green fields.
Kerry even played the role of Farmer John, waxing nostalgic about a couple of days he spent on an uncle's farm nearly a half century ago. "There was nothing more rewarding at the end of the day than being covered in dust and feeling dirty but looking behind you and seeing those furrows and the beautiful pattern and you knew you had done that. You could just sense this connection to the earth and to what was going to grow there," he said.
"I remember going out clearing a field or two -- hardest work I've done in my life, folks, I'm telling you." Kerry visited his uncle's farm for a short time when he was between the ages of 12 and 14.
While Kerry and Bush blame each other for high energy costs, they agree on the fundamental goal of expanding alternative-fuel use, as well as on many of the ways government can help attain it. The president's energy bill, which has been stuck in Congress for months, contains many of the ideas Kerry talked about here on Jim and Ruth Nelson's farm.
Both candidates support a plan to ensure a minimum of 5 billion gallons of renewable fuels are in use by 2012; extending ethanol tax incentives and providing consumers a big tax break for buying alternative-fuel vehicles. Both support a government role in making hydrogen-fueled vehicles a big part of the future. Both envision paying for these programs, in part, by making federal office buildings more energy efficient. "We're not trying to pretend this is all new stuff," said Sarah Bianchi, Kerry's policy adviser.
These ideas are included in Bush's energy bill, which Kerry, Edwards and many other Democrats oppose. This "flies in the face of what they are talking about on the campaign stump," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said in a conference call arranged by the Bush campaign.
Where the candidates diverge is on issues such as drilling in Alaska and legal protections for producers of MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether, a gasoline additive). Kerry and Edwards oppose both measures, while Bush supports them.
Kerry's energy message struck a chord with Ed Theis, 70, who, with his wife, Alice, traveled 40 miles from his farm in Leavenworth, Kan. to hear Kerry speak. "The prices are so high for foreign fuel that as farmers the price we pay for fuel is killing us -- we can't survive," he explained.
Marcia Byerson, a farmer's wife from nearby St Joseph, said high fuel prices are strangling her family's livelihood. "It's almost impossible to carry on without help," she said. "We have even discussed opting out of farming because of the rising costs of running tractors and other farm machinery. We can't sustain the farm for our children at this rate."