A story in the Oct. 4 Business & Finance section about the deregulation of natural gas said that the AFL-CIO had a national campaign called Citzen/Labor Energy Coalation opposing accelerated decontrol. The coalition says it is not part of the union, but receives some funding form it. The coalition and the AFL-CIO say each has a national campaign working against faster decontrol, although they are coordinating their efforts.
Consumers are mustering their forces and getting their guns ready for an all-out battle with the Reagan administration over its plan to speed up natural gas deregulation.
Former congressman Bob Eckhardt has been retained to lead the consumer charge on Capitol Hill and in energy commission hearing rooms. A war chest to fuel the fight contains $10,000 now and is expected to reach $35,000 by the end of this year. And a campaign to educate consumers about the economics and costs of decontrol has been launched.
What's more, the consumer movement is hungry for a victory. Having lost ground to President Reagan on nearly every major budget and policy decision, from the crippling of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the rewriting of label regulations, consumer leaders are prepared to dig in their heels for a long, hard fight against all attempts to accelerate the decontrol of natural gas prices.
"We believe we can win this one," said Ann K. Lower, a key staff member for the Consumer Federation of America, the nation's largest consumer membership organization, representing an estimated 30 million consumers. Working with CFA are the United Steelworkers of America, the American Public Power Association, the American Public Gas Association and the AFL-CIO.
Pricing of natural gas -- an odorless, colorless fuel that provides about one-fourth of the nation's energy supply -- now is controlled by the Natural Gas Policy Act. That act provides for phased decontrol of about 40 percent of all natural gas by 1985, with the rest continuing under control.
But a Cabinet committee has recommended to the administration that all natural gas be completely decontrolled over a three-year period ending in 1985.A bill that would do that has been introduced by Rep. Phil Gramm, a Texas Democrat who is regarded as a Reagan point man in the Congress. The administration also could accelerate decontrol with certain administrative procedures that are possible under the present law.
The war over deregulation is expected to intensify early next year.
As it unfolds, it will pit natural gas users against natural gas producers. Texan against Taxan -- Eckhardt from Houston versus deregulation advocate Gramm from College Station -- and even husband against wife. The husband, in this instance, is Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the House Energy Committee chairman who is strongly opposed to faster deregulation. Dingell's wife Debbie works for General Motors, which favors accelerated deregulation.
At stake are billions of dollars that could translate into bigger profits for producers and bigger bills for consumers. Advocates of decontrol contend it also could increase additional supplies of natural gas because of the incentives for finding new natural gas that would be permitted by the free market.
No action is expected immediately in Congress, where members are wrestling with the budget.
"But they [those who want deregulation now] are working assiduously anyway," Eckhardt said. "I know there is a kind of religious dedication to decontrol that motivates this administration and I don't expect it to cease. There is a tremendous amount of pressure by industry for decontrol. If the administration makes a strong play for [legislative] decontrol, the play would be made early next year and then it would be done much like Reagan has done in the past -- he puts in all the pressure at once and he has been fairly successful when he has done that."
Eckhardt and his allies now plan a counterattack on three fronts:
"We want to get out information on the economic effects of decontrol. We want to try to mobilize facilities of Congress to have a body of information which gives ammunition which exists in industry and in the administration on the issue. We want to engage in a kind of surveillance . . . on the administration actions taken by Doe [Department of Energy], Ferc [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] or any other agency ultimately created."
One major problem facing the consumer alliance is organization, Eckhardt said.
"The administration and the gas interests and the ones extremely active in making a case for decontrol are centralized and able to get together and get information and use propaganda on their side, whereas those who are concerned about the effect [of deregulation] are ordinary consumers and business consumers who aren't as organized to oppose it."
Consumer and labor leaders hope to overcome that disadvantage by working together on some issues, such as raising money for the legal fight led by Eckhardt, and by pursuing their own special efforts against deregulation. The AFL-CIO, for example, has a national campaign called Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition, a group that has an extensive effort to explain the issue to union members and other consumers.
"Many groups play many roles in this fight," said the CFA's Lower.
For example, she said CFA surveyed all of the work being done by opponents of deregulation before choosing a particular course of action. "We tried to look at what evryone was doing, because we didn't want to duplicate," she said. "The Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition is carrying out the grass-roots work and they are very well organized. Some very good economic studies are being made. But nowhere in that structure was there a legal talent that knew the Natural Gas Policy Act."
After concluding that CFA could fill that gap, the staff began lining up support for the idea from other opponents of deregulation. "We had many meetings" with officials of the United Steelworkers of America and the American Public Power Association, Lower said. "Both labor and the power association felt very strongly that we needed legal direction and that that was a role CFA could play," she said.
Since Eckhardt had helped write the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978, while he was still a member of Congress, it made sense to hire him for the job of fighting the Reagan administration's effort to change the law, Lower said. She knew of his expertise because she had worked for him while he was in office and had done some of the research for him on natural gas pricing.
But in addition to that, Eckhardt has established a reputation during his 14 years in Congress as a friend of consumers and consumer organizations.
Since he was retained in August as CFA's legal counsel on gas deregulation, Eckhardt has been devoting about half his time to the issue. His other time is taken up with other legal cases at the Washington law firm of Belnap McCarthy Spencer Sweeney & Harkaway, which he joined after his defeat last year.