In a speech at Fresno State University, Republican presidential candidate John McCain outlined a series of new proposals for dealing with the energy and environmental crises that are especially important to California voters. In some parts of the state, the price of a gallon of gas has already hit five dollars, and McCain’s recent decision to support lifting a ban on off-shore drilling is likely to draw the ire of many voters who remember Santa Barbara’s 1969 oil spill as perhaps the most devastating environmental catastrophe in California history.

But McCain came to the Golden State armed with details for an energy policy that has thus far been murky at best. McCain’s previous opposition to ethanol—particularly the subsidies and tariffs that Senator Obama and most other politicians who have spent time campaigning in Iowa support—has recently been tempered by an interest in opening up the flex-fuel markets to imports and sugar-based ethanol. Said McCain:

“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. And this can be done with a simple federal standard to hasten the conversion… the goal of 50 percent new flex-fuel vehicles for America.”

While few alternative transportation watchers are very optimistic about the potential of flex-fuels, one of McCain’s other proposals is likely to please anyone who’s been holding off on a new car until the first wave of mass-produced plug-ins and electrics find their way to the market:

“For every automaker who can sell a zero-emissions car, we will commit a 5,000 dollar tax credit for each and every customer who buys that car. For other vehicles, whatever type they may be, the lower the carbon emissions, the higher the tax credit.”

That should be music to the ears of the big automakers, who fear that the large price tags that will accompany the first few generations of plug-in hybrids and electric cars will be prohibitively expensive for consumers who are more concerned with cutting their fuel budgets than stopping global warming. GM predicts a price tag in excess of $30,000 for the early model Chevy Volts, and says it expects to take a loss on the car for years to come. If a McCain or Obama administration were to step in and subsidize the sticker price of the Volt or its competitors, it might go a long way towards ensuring their success in the American market.

But one proposal from the Fresno speech stood out and dominated the headlines: McCain said that his administration would offer a $300 million bounty for any innovator who could develop “a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.” Such a battery would have to come at a cost of 30 percent of the current options and be viable for mass production, effectively ending the debate over whether non-petroleum-powered vehicles were capable of spreading from Berkeley to Birmingham.

$300 million may be the most lucrative science fair prize ever offered, but it’s unclear how much additional incentive it would provide to developers. Given the trajectory of oil prices, a technology that could so drastically cut the expense of driving or transporting goods is already worthy plenty on the open market. Still, it’s admirable that McCain is focused more on rewarding success than providing open ended subsidies to the automobile industry. Several consecutive administrations have provided lucrative grants to Detroit, but until a few years ago, it seems to have had little effect.

Even if few environmental advocates are likely to embrace McCain based on his energy policies, it’s at least encouraging that he’s stepped outside of the tradition of inaction that has dominated presidential politics for several election cycles. If the presumptive Republican nominee thinks a progressive energy policy is integral to a winning the White House, it’s likely that no matter who wins, we’ll see some positive movement on these issues.