Updated Sep 4, 2018

Even as stakes rise for energy policy, voter worries ease

Customers pull their cars into a gas station in the Bronx on June 1, 2018. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

A key historic pattern that has traditionally shaped dynamics around U.S. energy policy and elections has all but disappeared heading into this year’s midterms. Robust U.S. shale gas and shale-oil production have greatly diminished voter concerns about energy availability and affordability — although a gasoline price spike could quickly rekindle them.

Why it matters: At the same time as voter focus on energy has declined, the two major parties have also developed a deeply polarized gap on climate policy, with only 18% of Republicans concerned a “great deal” about global warming compared to 66% of Democrats. These two factors together mean that the energy policy dynamic has now shifted firmly from Congressional production of complex and broad energy legislation — such as the comprehensive, “something for everyone” bills in 2005 and 2007 — to an increasingly complex, unpredictable and partisan dance between the executive branch, regulators, states and courts. This means that while the midterms won’t have a huge impact on the U.S. energy policy outlook, it will be at stake in 2020.

A change in Congress (particularly if limited to a Democrat House takeover) is unlikely to change the pro-fossil fuel and energy-dominant direction set by the Trump administration, since the constraints on Trump come much more from courts and regulators than from Congress. The 2020 election will therefore be much more decisive.

Democrats will almost certainly nominate a candidate whose energy posture combines second-term Obama climate-centric policy and California-style renewables support. Fracking will be a tricky issue given its importance in battleground states such as Colorado and Pennsylvania. For a preview of how Democrats might navigate the issue, look to this November’s ballot initiative in Colorado on drilling setbacks for oil and gas production. It’s less tricky for Republicans who universally support fracking.

The bottom line: A Democratic take-back of the House (likely) or even both chambers (less likely) will probably not disrupt the U.S. energy policy outlook. But a Democratic presidential victory in 2020 would re-open the fracking debate and provide a tailwind for climate- and renewables-friendly policy. But even there the next President will likely face the same legal and state-level constraints that President Trump faces on pipeline approvals and fuel-efficiency standards.

Robert Johnston is CEO of Eurasia Group and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

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