With a long collective sigh, Congress buried the natural gas issue 16 months ago, disposing of the ugly problem of how rising natural gas prices should be split between residential users and industry.
Or so it thought. The problem has been exhumed now, however, as a strong coalition of business groups prepares to fight a new federal regulation that would shift a larger share of gas costs to industry, away from residential gas consumers.
And in seeking to block the new rule on industrial gas pricing, the business coalition reopened the entire debate over natural gas policy, a subject Congress hoped it was done with when it passed the Natural Gas Policy Act late in 1978.
The new rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would require larger industrial gas users to bear a disproportionate share of price increases for new natural gas than household and commerical gas customers pay.
Industry's gas costs would rise by at least $720 million a year, because of the price shift, cutting about $15 a year from what the typical residential gas user would otherwise have had to pay, energy officials estimate.
The rule is to take effect May 9, unless either house of Congress vetoes it. When it passed the natural gas act, Congress directed FERC to shift the gas price burden more toward industry, but it gave itself the final word -- veto power over FERC's rule. So far, 82 House members and 12 senators want not only to block the new rule, but to repeal entirely the incremental pricing authority that is meant to shelter residential gas users.
The campaign by business to block the FERC rule promises to be one of the great lobbying offensives of the spring.
"You could say we're leading the charge," said George "Bud" Lawrence, head of the American Gas Association, which represents gas distribution companies and pipelines. The higher industrial gas prices imposed by increamental pricing will add significantly to inflation, the AGA says.
Merely the consideration of the pricing rule is spooking industrial firms away from gas, increasing the demand for foreign oil, Lawrence said.
The lobbying stepped up two weeks ago, with a visit by major business groups to the White House, one of a series of unannounced give-and-take sessions between the lobbyists and Carter advisers.
"We never forego an opportunity to say what's on our minds," said Jack Post of the Business Roundtable. "They listened, but they didn't make any commitments."
The Roundtable, whose membership includes nearly 200 of the nation's largest companies and financial institutions, the AGA state utility regulators, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, all are fighting the pricing rule.
Several hundred firms protested the rule when FERC was initially considering it earlier this year. Many of them have asked to testify when the House energy and power subcommittee takes up the issue Thursday.
Many in Congress felt that the natural gas act, a centerprice of President Carter's initial energy plan, was the most divisive political decision in years.
"But the bloody part was over deregulation of natural gas prices," Lawrence said. The incremental pricing issue should not be so terrifying for Congress, he added.
While the gas act permits a steady escalation in maximum prices for newly found gas, charges to households that heat with gas are not rising that rapidly because each pipeline company's supply includes lower priced gas discovered before the act took effect, and because a large party of each householder's gas bill in the Northeast is due to transportation of gas, not the gas itself.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the energy and power subcommittee, opposed repeal, saying it is too soon to change the act, when its impact on gas exploration and use is still unclear.
Lawrence, however says the time is ripe. "Maybe John Dingell thought he had a deal (on industrial pricing), but the vast majority of House and Senate members didn't see it that way."