One news story says there is a shortage of natural gas. Another says no, we have enough gas for 40 years.

Which is correct? A day of inquiry has left me without a clear answer. Perhaps staff writer William H. Jones had it right in yesterday's paper when he said there is no shortage of gas, yet in many of our cities there is "a shortage of readily available supply."

In the Washington area, we appear to be fortunate. The Washington Gas Light Co. seems well equipped to serve us. True, its "entitilements" from Columbia Gas and its other suppliers are limited. But Washington Gas had the foresight to lay in good reserve supplies many years ago, and to build physical facilities capable of coping with emergencies.

As a result, Washington Gas has reserve suplies stored in various places now, not the least of them a substantial reserve in West Virginia. The company also owns its own pipeline, through which it brings this gas to Washington at minimal cost.

In addition, Washington Gas is amount? Sheryl Rutledge of Washington Gas told me that even on a cold day, when gas consumption is high, the company can manufacture about one-third of the gas it needs.

Then why don't we laugh off shortages and just manufacture a lot of artificial gas? Why was it that on Monday of this week, even as Sheryl was telling me about our ability to manufacture one-third of our gas needs, only 4 1/2 per cent of the gas being used here had been artificially made?

The answer is money. Artificial gas costs more than natural gas.

"As the gas comes out of the well, it is really a mixture of four different things," Sheryl explained. "It is methane, which we know as natural gas; propane, from which artificial gas can be made; butane, which you're familiar with; and ethane, which we needn't concern ourselves with in this context.

"The price of natural gas sold in interstate commerce is federally regulated and runs about $1.20 per thousand cubic feet. But the price of propane is not regulated. It used to cost us about $1.65 to make a thousand cubic feet of gas from propane. At today's prices, it costs about $4.50. So there are strong economic reasons for using as little manufactured gas as possible."

When cold weather strikes, Washington Gas can crank up its manufacturing facilities in short order - one day at most. And once artificial gas has been introduced into the system to beef up the supply of natural gas, the two are indistinguishable. They burn the same, and give the same amount of heat. The only difference is in cost.

It's nice to know that we're equipped to manufacture a lot of gas in times of emergency - but not so nice to foot the bill for it.