Legislation to place a limit on the coal assets oil companies may acquire in the future appears likely to get the support of both the Justice Department's and Federal Trade Commission's top competition officials.
In a report scheduled for release next week, Justice's Antitrust Division concludes that the government does not have enough information to endorse a controversial measure that would require oil companies to divest themselves of interests they already hold in the coal business. It is a view also held by Alfred Dougherty Jr, director of the FTC's Bureau of Competition.
Both Dougherty and John Shenefield, assistant attorney general in charge of the Antiturst Division have come to believe, however, that some sort of status quo ought to be preserved while the government seeks the information.
"If the Antitrust Division . . . is to be able to analyze proposals for vertical or horizontal petroleum divestiture or restrictions on cross-energy ownership, we have to have access to data that currently is guarded by some companies as closely as the crown jewels," Shenefield complained three weeks ago to the Federal Bar Association.
At that time, Shenefield said some of the information the government is seeking may show "competitive problems" that will need solutions. "But that's just speculation now, and you can't act on speculation."
Shenefield told Congress last year that he personally would vote for legislation requiring major oil companies to divest themselves of their interests in coal and other energy sources if he were "a sitting senator."
"When you're not a sitting senator, you have two other obligations," he said last month. "Your position has to coincide with the administration's and be well based in fact."
Getting the information through the proposed financial reporting system of the president's energy program was among the "most important" activities of the division in the energy field, he added.
A total moratorium of future coal acquisitions by oil companies was considered, but rejected by both antitrust enforcement agencies indepently, sources said.
If Congress were to impose a limit on the share of any coal market that a producer could have and still be permitted to buy additional coal reserves or assets, producers would be given more, perhaps needed, flexibility with which to develop the reserves already held but would not be allowed to add to them significantly before the government decides whether or not such concentration is in the public interest, sources said.