Even when Washington isn't seized solid by the frigid Polar Vortex, things move at a glacial pace on Capitol Hill. So when Alaska's Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called this week for a radical revamping of America's oil export ban, she was the first to admit that it will be tough sledding.
For four decades since the Arab oil embargo of 1973 rocked the U.S. economy, there's been a ban of exporting American crude. But U.S. oil production – spurred by massive shale plays in North Dakota's Bakken fields and elsewhere – is soaring and the nation is poised to become a significant energy exporter. The ban on crude oil exports, designed for a different era, is distorting markets, damaging development and needs to be dumped, Ms. Murkowski said.
North of the 49th, Canadians are grappling with some of the same problems. Matching production to markets and, more importantly, getting the oil to where it's needed is often stymied by infrastructure bottlenecks sometimes created by political inaction.
In the United States, there's no better example than the Keystone XL pipeline; still awaiting a "yes" or a "no" from the Oval Office more than five years after it was proposed. Since then the North American energy market has changed, almost beyond recognition.
American refineries on the Gulf Coast may still need steady supplies of thick heavy crude but the far bigger problem – one that is seriously distorting the nation's oil market – is finding ways to get the booming production from the Bakken to refineries designed to deal with light, sweet crude.
A tangle of overlapping bureaucracies and decades-old legislation that entraps the U.S. energy market needs sweeping reform.
Almost no one disagrees. But nor does anyone expect rapid action from the bitterly deadlocked and divided Congress, especially in an election year.
Ms. Murkowski believes President Barack Obama has the power, and should, scrap the ban by executive order in the national interest.
But given the president's preference for delay – or as Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls it, "punting" – on contentious energy decisions like Keystone XL, it seems unlikely that Mr. Obama will lift the ban any time soon.
"If the administration is unwilling to act on its own, …. I am prepared to introduce legislation," Ms. Murkowski said. She's gathering allies, on and off Capitol Hill. Already some big oil companies back her. She may soon have a powerful partner from across the aisle – Senator Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who is tapped to be the next chair of the Energy Committee. Two powerful, pro-oil women from opposite ends of the nation (both of whom are also ardent Keystone XL backers) will soon be running the Senate's key committee on energy.
With mid-term elections looming only 10 months away, prospects for any sort of sweeping energy legislation in what remains of the 113th Congress seem slim. But pressure from growing domestic oil production may align with political realities next year.
Calling for an end to the ban on crude exports will likely set off another political firestorm. Some opponents argue it would send gas prices soaring, a view shared by those refiners who like the captive U.S. production and the discounts they enjoy buying U.S. crude that can't find a way to world markets.
Ms. Murkowski says the ban creates distortions that throttles development and stymies job creation.
"Lifting the prohibition on crude oil exports will serve to increase domestic oil production, and the entry of this oil onto global markets will put downward pressure on international prices," she said this week at the Brookings Institution.
Already, the U.S. has emerged as a major energy supplier.
"Right now: we are selling coal to the Netherlands, Morocco, and Germany; distillate fuel to France, Chile, and Argentina; petroleum coke to Turkey and China; gasoline to Colombia, Brazil, and Panama; jet fuel to Britain, Israel, and Nigeria; natural gas to Canada and Mexico; natural gas liquids to Switzerland, Honduras, and Aruba," she said. She wants tankers loaded with U.S. oil to be free to deliver to world markets.
Lifting the export ban on crude may not happen soon but burgeoning domestic production is creating powerful political pressure to reform the existing system.
"Lifting the ban will send a strong signal to energy markets that as a nation we are serious about our emerging role as a major hydrocarbon producer," Ms. Murkowski said.
Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.