Natural gas will be the clear winner whether you vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election. While their proposed energy plans are widely different—Clinton is calling for major investments in renewable energy, and Trump would rescind the Clean Power Plan—both candidates are promoting policies that would boost the development of gas infrastructure through pipelines and gas-fired electric generation. Each plan could have varying implications for utilities and consumers.
With several caveats—elected officials, even at the level of the presidency, cannot always effectuate their plans, and we are relying here on the candidates’ stated goals, which could differ from their actual agendas—the following represents our learned speculation on what the natural gas landscape will look like under President Clinton or President Trump.
Both Clinton and Trump have touted the environmental and economic benefits of domestically produced natural gas. Clinton says it has been critical to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, and Trump has suggested that current limits on U.S. production of natural gas have led to increased fossil fuel production in nations with lower environmental standards. Both say increased domestic production would generate more jobs.
Numerous aspects of Clinton’s plan would promote gas infrastructure development, including her proposal to work with states to encourage expanded use of natural gas combined-cycle power plants to enable increased integration of variable renewable resources. She would provide grants to cities and states to phase down fuel-oil consumption, and financing tools for new gas pipeline investments to support that objective. She would also seek to increase the deployment of natural gas-fueled vehicles through federal standards and infrastructure investments.
By 2025, Clinton envisions a nation that will have met the Obama Administration’s goal of reducing methane emissions by as much as 45 percent below 2012 levels. She proposes a new “pipeline partnership” among federal regulators, pipeline companies, local utility commissions and others to help cities and states repair and replace pipeline equipment “by leveraging big data, predictive analytics and innovative testing procedures to more quickly and effectively find and fix pipeline leaks.”
To expand natural gas infrastructure, Trump proposes to streamline the federal permitting process for energy projects, including for gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas export facilities. He believes that current restrictions have resulted in blocking or abandoning billions of dollars of private infrastructure investment, and he has criticized Clinton’s methane emissions position, contending that it will drastically increase the cost of natural gas.
Trump would also open more federal lands and offshore areas for gas production. Clinton, by contrast, would increase royalty rates for gas leases on federal lands, and she has expressed opposition to gas development offshore in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
Emails recently published by WikiLeaks indicate that Clinton is unlikely to seek a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, also known as a “carbon tax.” Further, Clinton purportedly told a building trades union that activists who seek her pledge to ban the production of all fossil fuels should “get a life.” According to the meeting transcript, she spoke favorably of gas infrastructure development: “I want to defend natural gas. I want to defend repairing and building the pipelines we need to fuel our economy. I want to defend fracking under the right circumstances.”
Regardless of who wins the presidential election, the next administration will work to promote the shale gas revolution and encourage increases in natural gas-fueled electric generation. The advances under Clinton’s plan would be tempered by the boost in renewable energy resources, while increases in coal extraction under the Trump plan could mitigate natural gas gains. Under either plan, however, natural gas will continue to play a prominent role in the generation mix, despite its deemphasized role in the Clean Power Plan.
On the gas utility side, local distribution companies (LDCs) should expect further opportunities to obtain supply from nontraditional sources as the development of new pipeline infrastructure continues. Even if the focus of the policy is on the use of natural gas for electric generation, LDCs can take advantage of the developments. Recent history shows that pipeline projects that are geared toward serving electric generation, including those providing flow-reversals, have attracted LDC shippers as additional beneficiaries. Under Clinton’s plan, LDCs would also have the potential to increase their customer bases through her proposed grants for local infrastructure investments and her natural gas vehicle deployment plan.
Interstate gas pipelines will continue to seek recovery of costs necessary to meet environmental and safety standards, including any aimed at reducing methane emissions. Pipeline companies will impose these expenses on customers by using “modernization” trackers under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s new policy permitting such recovery mechanisms, or through general rate cases. Either way, the costs will ultimately be passed on to the retail customers of electric and gas utilities. On the other hand, reductions in leaks due to improved equipment will reduce lost and unaccounted-for fuel costs, which will have a moderating effect on any gas transportation rate increases.
Natural gas is, of course, only one part of the candidates’ stated energy policies. The ultimate role of natural gas in energy production, and its effects on consumers, will be determined by broader economic forces and by how extensively various parts of the new president’s policy are implemented.