WASHINGTON -- Republicans emboldened by their Election Day victories are poised to use their new power on Capitol Hill to advance oil and gas industry priorities, beginning with approving the Keystone XL pipeline.
Supporters of that TransCanada Corp. project now count a filibuster-proof 61 votes in the Senate for legislation authorizing the pipeline and are preparing to advance the measure early next year, once Republicans take control of the chamber.
But they won't stop there. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in line to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is expected to use her post to press aggressively for an end to the nation's long-standing ban on crude oil exports.
And GOP leaders could look for middle ground on energy policy with proposals to accelerate natural gas exports and a popular efficiency bill that has been bogged down by the fight over Keystone XL.
Murkowski said in an interview Wednesday that in terms of Alaska's energy needs she plans to concentrate first on "the lower-hanging fruit" -- with work on hydroelectric, geothermal, ocean energy and other alternative or renewable areas that are likely to win broad support.
"For me to be setting the agenda on energy initiatives, I think is huge for Alaska. It really is an opportunity for our issues to be heard, to have that venue. It's not to say it's going to be all Alaska all the time," Murkowski said.
Alaska is already exempt from the oil export ban but lifting it will still benefit the state, she said.
"It makes our oil that much more competitive and we have will additional markets," Murkowski said.
Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is a top priority, but she is not optimistic that the Republican-controlled Congress will accomplish it.
"ANWR, even with the chairmanship, is not a given that we can advance an ANWR initiative to successful passage," Murkowski said. "You've got a president that is pretty committed to drawing a line in the sand. That doesn't mean we won't push it and push it very hard."
American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said he expects the new Congress to "waste no time advancing a pro-energy, pro-growth agenda," with measures expanding access to domestic oil and gas resources as well as efforts to rein in "duplicative and unnecessary regulations."
Although Republicans will control the Senate and have an even bigger advantage in the House of Representatives, they cannot count on 60 Senate votes to advance all of their energy and environmental policies past Democratic filibusters.
They can press some stated goals -- such as chipping away at environmental regulations or encouraging the Obama administration to relax the rules for crude exports -- through committee oversight hearings.
For instance, Murkowski is likely to step up the energy committee's oversight of the Interior Department -- giving the panel a chance to scrutinize the department's approach to protecting endangered species, leasing public lands for oil development and permitting offshore drilling. She also chairs the Appropriations subcommittee over the Interior Department.
That's "budgetary oversight of the National Park Service. Of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Forest Service. BLM. The Indian Health Service. The BIA. And the EPA," Murkowski said. "When you think about the federal agencies that have impact on Alaska and our daily lives, it's this alphabet soup that I just rattled off."
Kara Moriarty, president and chief executive of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said both of Murkowski's leadership roles are significant. Those federal agencies have been the source of "regulatory delays and overreach," she said in a written statement.
Two years ago, Murkowski and her staff put out an extensive blueprint to guide the nation's energy needs, Energy 20/20. The Energy Committee will have it along with various white papers as soon as they start work in January, Murkowski said.
"As chair, she gets to set the agenda," said Rick Rogers, executive director of the Anchorage-based Resource Development Council.
"There's no question that some of our Alaska issues will be front and center."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who is likely to take over as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, could use panel hearings to grill Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and other Obama administration officials about plans to limit carbon dioxide emissions and crack down on methane from oil and gas operations.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in an interview that Republicans will focus on loosening the "regulatory burden" that he said is holding back the energy industry and other sectors -- first through stand-alone bills and, if those fail, by using provisions in spending bills to defund those initiatives.
"A Republican majority will have priorities that never saw the light of day under Democratic leadership," said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon.
But he suggested the earliest legislative options could be holdovers ensnared by the current Congress' gridlock.
One of the candidates is a bill by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that aims to boost energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings.
Keystone XL is high on the list too. Hoeven, who is the lead sponsor of legislation that would authorize Keystone XL using Congress' authority under the Constitution's foreign commerce clause, said Obama could sign off on the measure as an olive branch to Republicans.
"After the first of the year, we'll bring the bill forward as is, we'll have more than 60 to pass it, and we'll do so, and then we'll send it to the president and see if he's willing to work with us," Hoeven said. "Given the clear vote from the American public and strong bipartisan support, he may decide it's time to start working with Congress, and this is a good example of a place to start."
Hoeven said it's possible he could attract 67 votes to override a presidential veto of Keystone XL by picking up a handful of Democrats who have either criticized the government's lengthy scrutiny of the project or have backed non-binding resolutions endorsing it.
If not, Hoeven said, another option is embedding the Keystone XL approval bill in a separate measure to fund part of the federal government or speed up the government's permitting of proposed natural gas exports.
On Wednesday, Obama signaled he was staying firm on Keystone and will wait for a State Department review process, which in turn is on hold pending a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to the pipeline's route through that state.
"There's an independent process. It's moving forward, and I'm going to let that process play out," Obama said.
Brigham McCown, a former pipeline regulator, suggested Obama could take a pragmatic approach to the project if a bill authorizing it lands on his desk. Signing legislation permitting Keystone XL — or allowing it to become law without his signature — could shield Obama from some environmentalists' criticism while ending a distracting, long-running debate.
Oil industry leaders basked in the election results on Wednesday — claiming they proved that embracing traditional energy development propelled candidates to victory. "Energy was the clear winner," said Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute. "In race after race, voters from all regions of our nation and both political parties voted for pro-development, true all-of-the-above energy policies."
Environmentalists were struggling to regroup — and bracing for big fights renewable energy tax policies, coal exports and land protections.
"The oil and gas industry and other special interests spent big on yesterday's election, and now expect those investments to pay off in the new Congress," said Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress.
Murkowski said she has a collaborative style and intends to work with Democrats – but just how closely depends on who ends up as the ranking minority member.
She's comfortable with the Democrat now in the post, Sen. Mary Landrieu of oil-producing Louisiana. Landrieu, however, must win a December runoff to return to D.C. If she fails, Washington's Maria Cantwell is next in line.
"Sen. Cantwell has a different perspective. She has been one of the leaders in the Senate working to block any development of ANWR," Murkowski said. "It's going to be important to know who I am serving with."
Additional reporting by Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer in Alaska.