By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican on the Senate energy committee on Thursday acknowledged passing legislation to boost domestic energy production will be a tough task this year, even as Republicans maneuver to keep the focus on energy issues ahead of the November elections.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, however, said she was hopeful that Congress would make some progress on opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to drilling this year.
"When you have a resource as considerable as we have with the ANWR resource, you can't just say we're not even going to attempt to make a run at it because we have an administration that does not support opening up ANWR," Murkowski told reporters at a briefing.
Republicans in Congress are pushing on a number of fronts to promote the country's energy industry, including allowing for more drilling to help pay for a new transportation bill and to force the go ahead of the Keystone pipeline project.
Republicans and Alaskan lawmakers have wanted to expand drilling in the oil-rich Arctic refuge for years, but have been unable to overcome intense opposition from Democrats and environmentalists.
The Obama administration has said repeatedly that drilling in the refuge was off the table, but lawmakers on the Republican-controlled House of Representatives Natural Resources committee advanced a measure on Wednesday that would open a portion of the refuge to oil production.
The House energy bill would link drilling in ANWR and expanded offshore oil and gas exploration to a transportation package supporting funding for highways and infrastructure.
The move to attach contentious energy items to "must-pass" legislation represents a larger effort by Republicans to make sure energy policy remains front and center this election year.
Republicans have slammed the Obama administration for focusing too much on renewable energy, arguing that increasing production of fossil fuels will strengthen energy security and boost the flagging U.S. economy.
Still, Murkowski said that it may be hard to move ahead with the ANWR measure even if it was attached to the transportation bill.
"I look at what I know of my colleagues on other side of the aisle and I know there are real hurdles there," Murkowski said.
As far as the other House energy proposals, Murkowski said some of them could make it into law, but it's too early to know whether that will be possible.
Whitney Stanco, an energy policy analyst at Guggenheim Securities in Washington, said the drilling provisions were unlikely to survive in the Senate.
She said language to require a near-term lease sale off Virginia would be the most likely item to move ahead, as both Democratic senators from the state would likely support it.
"But so far we haven't seen any movement to separate a Virginia lease sale from the more controversial provisions."
Democrats say the recent legislation from House Republicans is focused on scoring political points.
"This appears to be a messaging exercise more than a serious attempt at legislation," said Bill Wicker, spokesman for Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union Address that he also supported a strong domestic energy industry, and noted the sharp increase in oil and gas production during his term.
Murkowski chided the White House for taking any credit for the sector when much of the increased output was coming from private and state lands.
"It's like Al Gore taking credit for inventing the internet," she said.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Russell Blinch and Lisa Shumaker)