Announcing a new research effort to improve the fuel efficiency of trucks, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore said on Friday he believes the internal combustion engine can be eliminated sooner than he originally predicted.

While not offering a specific date, the vice president said advances in technology and research led him to believe the pollution-belching engine can be replaced with a cleaner version before 2017, a date he suggested in his 1992 best-selling book “Earth in the Balance.”
Seeking to enhance his reputation as an environmentalist and defuse charges he is an extremist, the vice president said he and President Bill Clinton have proved that economic growth and environmental protection can go hand in hand.

“Our environment is now cleaner than it has been in a generation and, not coincidentally, at exactly the same time we have just officially broken the all-time record and entered the longest period of economic growth in the entire history of the United States,” declared Gore, the presumptive 2000 Democratic presidential nominee.

The vice president made the comments in Romulus, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, home of the nation’s automotive industry, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, which he will help celebrate in Washington on Saturday.

Gore’s book won praise from environmentalists, yet critics charged he was an extremist who essentially wanted to abolish the car – a charge he denied.

“I remember the fierce criticism I got eight years ago when I wrote ‘Earth in the Balance,'” Gore said on Friday. “I expected the criticism then and I wear that as a badge of honour.”

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Flanked by industry and labour leaders, he said, “I was wrong when I thought we could end our reliance on the internal combustion engine in 25 years because after talking to the manufacturers and the workers and because of our work together I now see we can do it in less than 25 years.”

On Friday, the vice president announced a new research partnership between the federal government and many of the nation’s leading truck manufacturers to more than double the fuel efficiency of trucks within the next decade.

“This new technology will reduce our consumption of foreign oil, clean our air and ultimately make our roads safer,” Gore said.

As vice president, Gore has headed a partnership between the federal government and U.S. automotive industry dedicated to developing more fuel-efficient cars that use alternative energy sources.

Gore aides said the White House has proposed funding for the first year of the truck project of $142 million. Among the companies that will participate are Mack Trucks, Oshkosh Trucks, Volvo Trucks North America and Detroit Diesel Corp.

In a new introduction to “Earth in the Balance,” which was re-released this week, Gore dismisses his critics, stands by his call to eliminate the internal combustion engine and warns that the danger posed by global warming is greater than ever.

“Global warming is no longer a distant threat,” he wrote. “It’s as real, as clear and present an issue with profound effects on people’s lives as war and peace or recession and prosperity – and the effects are only just beginning to be felt.”

Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson has ridiculed the book, saying, “Every American should buy and read Al Gore’s extremist manifesto.”

“Should Al Gore become president, the consequences will be fewer jobs, higher taxes, steeper energy prices and an economy at risk,” Nicholson said.

Gore was a U.S. senator from Tennessee when he wrote “Earth in the Balance,” and shortly afterward was selected as Clinton’s vice-presidential running mate.

In the 1992 election, then-President George Bush ridiculed Gore as “the Ozone Man.”

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Bush’s son and Gore’s anticipated Republican foe in this year’s White House race, has been relatively silent on “Earth in the Balance.”

Dan Bartlett, a Bush spokesman, declined to say whether the Texas governor also considers Gore “the Ozone Man,” but said, “Al Gore will have plenty of time to write more books next year” after the election.

After announcing the new research project, Gore had a private lunch with Teamster President James Hoffa, who has not yet decided whom he will endorse in the 2000 election.