The Long View: What Are the Biggest Issues for the Energy Arena Over the Next 10 Years?

Stakeholders in the energy sector are focused on the ongoing legal battle over the Clean Power Plan, the potential rules on methane emissions and the latest energy bill moving through the Senate. But taking a longer view, what big issues will dominate the energy industry for the next 10 years?

While government policy will be a factor, technology and the marketplace will influence long-term trends. Moreover, the energy sector will continue to be influenced by the ongoing effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the world's carbon footprint.

This makes the crystal ball particularly foggy. But there are a few issues that we know will drive key policy debates over the next decade.

(1) Clean Coal -- Will the decline in coal continue?

The legal challenges of the Clean Power Plan will be hashed out in the next year or two, but the debates over greenhouse gases and climate change will rage for at least the next decade. Carbon emissions will be a driving factor in our energy landscape for the foreseeable future and there is no sector more strongly impacted than coal.

Coal has been hammered over the past decade. Ten years ago, coal generated more than half of the electricity in the United States. In 2015, that share had fallen to about one-third. Low natural gas prices and increased environmental regulation have contributed to this sharp decline. There is a fundamental question about whether coal can ever make a come-back.

Technology is the real wild card here. If researchers can find a way to make coal cleaner in a cost effective way, the industry will see a domestic resurgence.

So far, those research efforts have not borne fruit and without a breakthrough, the coal industry will continue to struggle. But there is significant ongoing research activity, and both government and industry have an interest in finding a way to reduce the carbon footprint of coal so that it can be an environmentally sustainable way to help power the nation - and the world.

(2) Infrastructure Fights -- Is controversy the "new normal"?

Historically, energy infrastructure has not garnered much of a quarrel. But in recent years there has been increased controversy over pipelines and transmission lines. The Keystone pipeline is the poster child for infrastructure battles, but there are others.

In April, Kinder Morgan announced its decision to cancel the Northeast Direct pipeline following opposition from local communities. The Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline in Georgia, Florida and Alabama has become controversial and the Clean Line transmission line in Arkansas has also ignited a firestorm of opposition.

Even when the infrastructure is ultimately sited, the wrangling increases uncertainty and lengthens the timeframes for energy suppliers, raising the cost of investments that are already expensive.

Blocking or delaying infrastructure projects could have a significant impact on efforts to bring clean power to regions like the Southeast that don't have readily accessible wind or solar. It could also hamper initiatives to increase the use of natural gas to regions like New England that still rely on home heating oil and other, dirtier fuels.

Ironically, environmental groups, both locally and nationally, have latched on to this approach since they have had some success with it. Unless that dynamic changes, conflict may be the new normal for new infrastructure.

(3) Transportation - How will innovations in the transportation sector impact the energy industry?

Even with low gasoline prices, people are driving less; millennials are buying fewer cars than previous generations, vehicles are getting more efficient and fuel economy standards continue to increase. Given that most of the oil consumed in the world is used in the transportation sector, these new technologies have the potential to impact the oil industry as well.

This question is particularly difficult to answer because in many cases the technology exists - think electric cars - and so the uncertainty lies in consumer behavior. Will electric cars ever catch on? Similarly, if autonomous vehicles come to market in the timeframe most developers expect, does that increase vehicle miles traveled?

Also, trends in the transportation sector here in the United States may not translate worldwide. Oil markets are world markets, so while shifts in the American transportation sector have an impact, it is international trends that really change the equation.

Looking ahead to the next decade, developments in the energy sector will be driven by climate change policy and technological innovation. Taking the long view, clean coal, infrastructure and transportation will be in the forefront of debates to come.