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Split Congress Could Expand Energy Debate

With the Democrats expected to retake control of the House and possibly even the Senate Tuesday, natural gas experts have started to seriously consider what this will mean for energy policy.

It's "more likely just the House" that Democrats will recapture, said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA). There is a "small chance" that Democrats could win a slim majority in the Senate, but "I'm still a little skeptical on that one," he told NGI.

Even if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, Edwards noted that it will "only be marginal control," which would continue to frustrate efforts to push through a GOP agenda in the next Congress. However, it also could frustrate a House-inspired Democratic agenda. Both the House and the Senate -- except for a brief period -- have been controlled by Republicans since 1995. The Senate shifted to Democratic control after the defection of then-GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont in June 2001, but it returned to Republican control after the November 2002 elections.

A major Democratic victory in Tuesday's mid-term elections will "make it more of a challenge" to pass legislation to open up traditionally closed portions of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to oil and natural gas drilling, Edwards said. This was a tough bill to negotiate even in a Republican-controlled House and Senate. There's still the possibility, however, that Republicans will return after the elections and pass OCS legislation during a lame-duck session before the Democrats could officially take control of one or both houses (see Daily GPI, Oct. 2).

Paul N. Cicio, president of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America (IECA), declined to comment on the prospects for OCS legislation under the Democrats, "particularly since we may have a lame-duck session [following the elections] and we may need some Democrats" to support a GOP-crafted OCS bill. "I have every understanding that working on the OCS deal is a priority" of the Republicans during the upcoming lame-duck session, he said.

The focus of a Democratic Congress "clearly would be on alternative energy sources, at least in the short term," said Edwards. "I think that's a given" that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who would be in line to be the next Speaker of the House, would not be very friendly to the oil and gas industry, he noted.

Pelosi would be "pretty skeptical" about any major tax breaks for oil and gas companies, as well as new production initiatives, Edwards said. Except for the tax breaks, he doesn't see Pelosi or other House Democrats trying to unwind any of the provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Edwards doubts that the election results will have much impact on pipeline safety legislation, which INGAA has been closely tracking. "I'm not sure it makes that much difference one way or the other. I think that's bipartisan."

For IECA's Cicio, a proponent of expanded offshore drilling, energy is a non-partisan issue. "Even if the Democrats do control the House and there is control of the Senate, I think that there is room for compromise and room for progress. Every constituent of every member of Congress regardless of party is impacted by high energy prices and they understand the need for improved energy security. The public gets it," he said.

"Energy is everybody's problem. And just because we may have a change in control doesn't necessarily mean that we can't move forward to improve domestic supply and security."

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