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After US midterm elections, energy policy could be buffeted by presidential politics

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Funding still the rub if infrastructure bill gets attention

Environmental contingent in Democratic party

Washington — If Democrats retake the US House of Representatives in the midterm elections, legislation to revamp the nation's infrastructure could take the stage in Washington, while energy policy might take a less central role and be altered by 2020 presidential politics, natural gas industry executives were told Wednesday.

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Two weeks before the midterm elections, the Natural Gas Roundtable in Washington heard from a government relations consultant as well as manufacturing and utility executives.

One common assumption is that Democrats will step up oversight of the Trump administration should they take the House.

Greg Means, founder of government relations firm Alpine Group, suggested coal, rather than natural gas, was likely to be a target of investigations of Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Energy initiatives or regulatory rollbacks.

"I don't see us as being a focal point, certainly not in any bad way," he said, suggesting abundant natural gas had a positive story even under the Obama administration, with the resource's lower emissions footprint and success in competitive markets.

For now, with gasoline and natural gas prices in check, energy doesn't make the top of the list of things voters worry about, and thus isn't showing up in political ads this season, he said.

ACTIVIST CONTINGENT

Still, Aric Newhouse, senior vice president of policy and government relations for the National Association of Manufacturers, raised the possibility that the activist environmental community in the Democratic voter base could push the conversation to the left.

"The interesting dynamic will be what is the response from the candidates. Are they willing to say no to that special interest [or] are they willing to say yes to that special interest," he said.

"Think back where we were three years ago," with celebrity activists involved in oil pipeline opposition. "I don't think that underlying political energy suddenly disappeared. ... I think it could be tapped again," he said.

With an increased focus on the presidential campaign after the midterms, the underlying content of the energy policy debate in Washington could shift by March 2020, he said.

Democrats, should they take the House, have discussed acting on infrastructure legislation, among other matters. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn't talked about specifics on energy policy, Newhouse said.

"She's been very, very blank on that," he said, adding there will be tremendous pressure on Democrats to "do something in this space."

Matthew Nugen, WEC Energy Group director of federal government affairs, said his company sees lots of opportunities in infrastructure legislation. Such legislation could address transmission upgrades and expansions.

But all three speakers agreed a major obstacle is how to pay for infrastructure packages, which could cost up to $1 trillion, even if both Democrats and President Donald Trump dub infrastructure a priority.

CARBON TAX

"We've proven over the last couple of decades that we won't raise the gas tax," Means said. If the Democrats take over, "that is going to lead to a discussion on carbon tax as a way to fund infrastructure," he said.

According to Nugen, "in general, our analysis is that some small things could get moved in next year, but it would be really hard in this divided government to move anything major unless there are some really big negotiations that are done."

"We don't think that much is going to change in Washington, even if the Democrats take back the House," he said.

For natural gas pipelines, reforms to streamline permitting have been a priority, but it's uncertain whether those would be featured in a bill pushed by Democrats, who have been wary of weakening environmental restrictions. Recently, the industry has turned its sights to getting EPA guidance or clarifications to rein in actions by some states that have sidelined projects using the federal Clean Water Act.

House Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Democrat of New Jersey, who could take over as committee chairman, has said a priority would be investments in green energy and drinking water infrastructure. Oversight is also on his list. He has promised to scrutinize the Trump administration's "dangerous policies that only make [climate change] worse," as well as examine Trump's steps to relax environmental protections.

-- Maya Weber, maya.weber@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Annie Siebert, newsdesk@spglobal.com