By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As incoming head of the Senate Energy Committee, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski will gain more clout in January to reverse the 40-year ban on most U.S. crude oil exports, but she is unlikely to rush into legislative action.
The Republican senator has fought to relax the ban all year by issuing a series of papers detailing how such exports have been allowed in the past, holding a private meeting on the subject with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and hinting that 2015 could be the time to introduce ban-ending legislation.
When it became clear on Tuesday night that her fellow Republicans had won control of the Senate, Murkowski, at a party in Anchorage, gleefully held a chair over her head, proclaiming she was the chairman of the energy committee.
But upon taking the reins, Murkowski's first steps to roll back the ban, imposed by Congress after the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, are expected to involve holding hearings, pressuring Obama administration officials, and testing the level of support from party leadership.
"Murkowski probably could get a bill out of her committee if she pushed really hard, but that would be terribly impolitic because then she would be putting (new Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, and potentially some of her colleagues, in a difficult position " said Kevin Book, a policy analyst at ClearView Energy Partners.
The current shale drilling boom has put the United States in a position to become the world's largest crude oil producer. Support in Congress for overturning the export ban has risen slightly as light crude, difficult for domestic refiners to process with current equipment, floods the Gulf Coast.
In September, U.S. Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and former chairman of the House Energy Committee, came out in favor of lifting the ban.
But many Republicans have been slow to take a position. Some worry about the impact on oil refiners, which could see higher costs if some of the abundant supply of U.S. crude oil is shipped abroad.
The possibility that domestic gasoline prices could rise, angering voters, has also made lawmakers wary, although several studies suggest exports by themselves would not lead to higher U.S. prices at the pump.
Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said she does not yet have a specific timeline on oil exports, but repeated that legislation would be needed if the administration does not overturn the ban. He said Murkowski will not talk much about oil exports until January.
Murkowski will have other issues on her plate, too, including pushing for faster approvals of U.S. natural gas exports and holding hearings on the Interior Department's budget.
Even if the White House lifts a hold at the Department of Commerce on more than 20 applications for exports of condensate, a minimally-processed light oil, or relaxes the ban by allowing swaps of light oil in exchange for heavy oil more appropriate for domestic refiners, pressure will still be on Murkowski.
More than a dozen oil producers, including ConocoPhillips, Continental Resources Inc, and Hess Corp teamed up last month to form Producers for American Crude Exports (PACE), to lobby Congress to reverse the ban. Only legislation will provide certainty the ban will be lifted for good, the group said.
Murkowski's year of experience fighting the ban could give her an opening to introduce legislation in the second half of 2015, said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who focuses on energy politics.
"If you carve out a niche for yourself in the Senate in terms of policy expertise and you get things incubating ... often you get an opening where you can do something," he said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Ros Krasny and Marguerita Choy)