Investments in oil and natural gas drilling programs often are dismissed by important segments of the population. After all, aren't they just playthings for the rich, designed to reduce taxes and increase wealth?

Tax shelters they may be, but they also have become an important part of this nation's often sputtering drive toward energy independence, according to Arthur Jerrold King, president of a unique investment advisory service that set up shop in an historic townhouse last year.

In 1979, publicly registered and privately placed oil and gas programs raised an estimated $2.2 billion from individual investors.

No oil company devotes that much money to exploration for energy; indeed, the oil and gas shelter investments, launched in the early 1950s, are equal to a third of what is spent for domestic exploration by all the petroleum giants.

It's a big business for the nation's stock brokers, with some 500,000 investors participating in the publicly registered programs that have total investments of $1 billion. The average energy drilling investor has $20,000 tied up in such programs in any one year. With oil prices bound to rise indefinitely, these investments are expected to attract ever increasing amounts of capital.

Enter King's new firm, Investment Search Inc., which has won rapid credibility in the investment community by offering very specialized research on specific drilling programs, not done before in such detail.

And, providing evidence that important investment advisers don't have to be located on Wall Street in an era of instant communcations, King and his partners picked Duke of Gloucester Street in Maryland's capital city:

"We wanted to be on the East Coast, because that's the center of the investment community, but we didn't want New York for personal reasons and we wanted to be close to D.C. for the data base at the Securities and Exchange Commission. We're 45 minutes from downtown Washington and National Airport and 30 minutes from BWI. And we didn't want to be in Texas, where we'd be unduly influenced by the industry, King said in an interview.

Investment Search is registered with the SEC, and King and his partners are probably among only an handful of persons who study in detial the thousands of pages in shelter investment offerings filed with the government.

One of King's most provocative findings came from a recent study of 46 drilling programs that raised $745 million from private investors in 1979.

Some 60 percent of that money, $438 million, probably will never be fully returned to the investors, since the size of drilling programs apparently has a substantial adverse effect on program performance. In brief, according to the Annapolis firm's research, programs of more than $25 million each do not have good return records, while programs under $10 million each perform far better; (36 percent at least double the investment and only 14 percent return less than the initial investment).

But many brokers did not want to deal with the smaller programs -- the best deal may be a $5 million program, King said -- and many brokers "aren't ready to admit that the big drilling programs don't perform as well," he added. He suggested that smaller investment programs offered by regional securities firms could be worth a look. "They're way ahead of the big wire (retail) houses in product planning. They select and change every year, with 40 to 60 different programs," he said.

King said the structure of a program is important, with the actual involvement of sponsors as investors being a key. Programs generally do better when the sponsor has a stake in the outcome.

Such is the type of analysis that goes into Investment Search's various services, including:

Investment briefs, with an analysis of all publicly registered oil and gas programs.

Program evaluation reports, analuzing private placement oil and gas investments.

"Due diligence" investigations of both public and private investment programs that securities underwriters are required to have completed to determine the adequacy and accuracy of a registration statement as well as the potential economic viability.

An investment advisory service for individual investors as well as the investment and financial community.

King said he saw a void in this growing investment arena, an absence of thorough analysis for shelter programs, such as already exists for other securities. In less than a year, he has attracted 500 subscribers for his regular reports, including brokers in the Washington and Baltimore communities.

He or his partners visit the headquarters of sponsoring companies and have established a goal of becoming the shelter industry's record-keepers. King's firm has set up its own printing shop in the basement here and has 17 employes. fUpstairs, there is a growing data base that is unique.

Before moving to Maryland, King was vice president of Apache Corp., a major tax shelter investment issuer, and president of its broker-dealer subsidiary, Apache Programs Inc., in Minneapolis. He worked for Apache for 18 years and spent an great deal of time studying competitors -- hence the basic research foundation. When he departed, he took with him a cadre of Apache executives,

Other founders of Investment Search are Dennis Wells, executive vice president and formerly vice president of Apache district sales (he is based now in Nashatah, Wis.); James Cunningham, a former Apache district representative who is western regin director for Investment Search; John Frederick, editor of Invwestment Briefs and formerly responsible for Apache's shareholder reports and Audrey Groene, head of research for Investment Search and former manager of reserarch for Apache.

King described energy shelter investments as good estate planning tools but condeded that most investors are interested in tax write-offs.