Richard L. Dunham is the man in the middle of the latest energy crisis the nation faces.
The 47-year-old chairman of the Federal Power Commission has been working seven-day weeks monitoring the dwindling supplies of natural gas, approving emergency purchases of gas and, last week at least, worrying about strains on the nation's ability to generate electricity.
The five-member Federal Power Commission (there is one vacancy at present) is charged with regulating the price of natural gas which flows across states line; and with overseeing the pipelines which transport gas from the states in which it is discovered to the states in which it is burned.
The agency also oversees the vast interlocking electrical power grid which covers the country.
Dunham said the power commission began to get worried about the winter gas problems after a survey of 19 major interstate pipelines showed sizeable deficiencies in their ability to meet committments if the winter were normal.
It was not until November, when the severe cold trends became apparent that the commission got worried.
"Winter really began this year in October instead of November," Dunham lamented.
In December the commission set up a special bi-weekly reporting system for pipelines so the agency could keep on top of potential problems. "But the real kick in the bucket was the first two weeks of January," when the weather turend extraordinarily cold and distribution companies had to did deeply into their gas stores.
In the 17 northeastern states, nearly all customers but those with the highest priority such as homes and hospitals have been deprived of gas supplies, to keep pressure up in the distribution systems and assure that there is gas available in February and early March - traditionally the peak heating season.
Since mid-January Dunham and his fellow commissioners have been working long hours to approve emergency purchases of gas by interstate pipelines from unregulated, intrastate pipelines which sell the gas in the same state in which it is discovered at prices well above the federal rate.
"We've set some records in approving some of these emergency purchases," Dunham said. Some have been approved as fast as four or five rst. In the past such approval might take days.
The commission has taken to accepting applications by wire and to validating emergency sharing the gas supplies by hard-pressed pipelines, rather than requiring formal prior approval.
But each one of the extraordinary decisions must be made by the commission- not by the staff or by Dunham alone.
"We used to meet once a week as a full commission," Dunham said in an interview. "Now we meet almost daily. We met twice last Saturday. Once last Sunday." Last Sunday Dunham missed the commission meeting - it was chaired by commissioner James Watt - because he was at the White House conferring on the energy crisis with Carter administration officials.
Dunham, his fellow commissioners and top staff officials missed the inauguration of President Carter as well. The Federal Power Commission did not observe that holiday - instead it spent the day holding hearings and taking action on a variety of measures designed to get more gas flowing in the interstate pipelines.
Dunham was named by President Ford to head the commission in 1975. President Carter is expected to name a replacement soon. Dunham was an aide to name a replacement soon. Dunham was an aide to former vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, serving finally as budget director of the state of New York.
When Rockefeller became vice-president, Dunham joined his staff and later became deputy director of the White House Domestic Council, which Rockfeller chaired.