Energy: shift to natural gas may continue no matter who wins election

One presidential candidate has staked out oil and coal as the foundation of his energy policy. Another backs biofuels, wind and other alternatives. But one U of M expert says the market's march toward natural gas may well continue no matter who wins the race for the White House.

The presidential campaign issue with the greatest impact on rural America may be energy policy. And on that topic President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have lined up on different sides of the fence. Romney favors fossil fuels such as oil and coal, while Obama backs alternative fuels including wind and solar power.

But will the election outcome really chart the course of our energy future? A University of Minnesota professor who specializes in energy issues has some doubts. In a Forum Communications article, Doug Tiffany says market forces have businesses and utilities marching toward natural gas, and that seems likely to continue regardless of the election result.

Indeed, the federal forecast shows supplies of natural gas increasing and prices falling, partly because of the hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - technique that is making previously inaccessible gas available.

Traders speaking to the Wall Street Journal see a recent rise in the natural gas price as a temporary blip. The paper reports decades-low prices for gas have had utilities making the switch from coal for three years.

Here's how one brokerage house was seeing natural gas prospects a week ago:

This chart tweeted by a University of Michigan economist shows what natural gas prices have been doing relative to oil (now 82 percent lower):

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Cost of natural gas at 10-year low

CenterPoint Energy told WCCO, January's home heating prices are at their lowest point in 10 years. The company says heating demand is down 14 percent compared to last winter. A spokesperson says the average gas bill is about 25 percent less, a trend that is expected to continue into 2012.