MOUNT HOLLY, N.C. - President Obama on Wednesday made his most urgent appeal yet for the nation to wean itself from oil, calling it a “fuel of the past’’ and demanding that the United States broaden its approach to energy.
Mindful of the political dangers of high gas prices, he said shrinking demand for oil must drive the solution.
Obama, promoting his energy policies in the state that will host the Democratic National Convention, called on Congress to provide $1 billion in grants to local communities to encourage greater use of fuel-efficient technologies. The administration’s goal is to make electric vehicles as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles by 2020.
The president also proposed greater tax incentives to encourage the purchase and use of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Gas prices are at their highest levels for this time of year and Obama has been traveling in recent weeks to promote energy proposals he says will reduce foreign oil dependency over the long term.
“We need to invest in the technology that will help us use less oil in our cars and our trucks, and our buildings, and our factories,’’ Obama said. “That’s the only solution to the challenge. Because as we start using less, that lowers the demand, prices come down.’’
The president spoke at a Daimler plant in Mount Holly. He traveled there as the Republican field seeking to defeat him in November remains unsettled. Mitt Romney squeezed out a win in Ohio on Tuesday, captured five other states, and padded his delegate lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But he was forced to share the Super Tuesday spotlight with a resurgent Rick Santorum.
Obama’s attention to energy comes as high gas prices put a strain on pocket books. On Wednesday, the nationwide average for regular unleaded slipped less than a penny to $3.761 per gallon, according to auto club AAA. While the price has stabilized somewhat over the past two days, a gallon of regular unleaded is still 48.5 cents higher than it was at the beginning of the year.
Republicans have been critical of Obama, blaming his policies for the spike in gas prices. Gingrich has argued that as president, he would reduce the price of gasoline to $2.50 a gallon.
Without naming Gingrich, Obama dismissed his claim.
“Next time you hear some politician trotting out some three point plan for $2 gas, you let him know we know better,’’ Obama said. “Tell him we’re tired of hearing phony election year promises that never come about.’’
Selecting North Carolina for his energy message has a strong election-year undertone. Obama won North Carolina by only 14,000 votes in 2008. He was the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to carry the state.
Obama struck a cheerful, relaxed pose, praising the hospitality of North Carolinians.
“Even the folks who don’t vote for me, they’re nice to me, they usually wave five fingers,’’ he joked.
The visit marked Obama’s first to a foreign automaker as president, but he was pushing a familiar theme. He called on Congress to end tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry, which amount to about $4 billion a year.
“We should put every member of Congress on record,’’ Obama said. “They can stand up for the oil companies or they can stand up for the American people and this new energy future.
“We can place our bets on the fuel of the past or we can place our bets on American know-how and American ingenuity and the American workers just like the ones right here,’’ he said.
Obama’s $1 billion incentive for communities is designed to promote use of technologies such as charging stations for electric vehicles. Obama has called for 1 million plug-in vehicles on American roads by 2015. If Congress approves the plan, up to 15 communities would be picked as models of innovation.
Obama also was calling for increasing a tax incentive to $10,000 from $7,500 for people who purchase certain vehicles.
But Republicans have questioned the worthiness of such tax credits. General Motors Co., for example, recently suspended production of its Chevrolet Volt electric car for five weeks amid sluggish sales, idling 1,300 workers.
In Congress Wednesday, Republicans and oil industry leaders called for more US gas production to combat rising prices while Democrats focused on conservation and the role of Wall Street speculators in driving up prices.