THE COLLAPSE of the natural-gas compromise in Congress - an event that appears very likely - would have dire political consequences. It would signify the demise of President Carter's energy plan. It would tell voters that a diorganized and chaotic Congress wouldn't make up its mind. It would warn other nations that the United States does not care to fashion any sort of an energy policy beyond the status quo. It would be a failure of government.
The immediate responsibility for rescuing the compromise lies with the 42 senators and representatives who serve on the conference committee. Last May the conferees announced an agreement, in principle. Eversince then they have been trying to reduce the principle to legislative language, with the quarrels deepending as time passed. The peculiarly depressing thing about this spectacle is that the negotiators on both sides are being pushed and hounded by constituencies committed to utterly unrealistic hopes and beliefs.
The corridors of the congressional office buildings have lately been crowded with independent gas producers in their tooled boots, demanding that Congress sink the compromise. It's not the big oil companies that carry the political weight when emotions rise. It's the thousands of independents and wildcatters who swing congressional votes - and congressional elections. A good many of those independents have persuaded themselves that, if the compromise loses, Congress will go on to deregulate gas completely next year. That, in our judgment, is absolutely wrong. If the compromise loses, nobody in Congress will touch the issue again for a decade. For the men caught in the middle of this conference, it has been an ugly and bruising experience.None of them intends to repeat it.
On the other side, among the consumers' lobbies, the prevailing spirit is an obdurate and impervious naivete. It sees the entire issue as purely a moral test - a celestial struggle between the infinite goodness of the consumer and the infinite greed of the producer - in which all considerations of production costs, market conditions and prices of competing fuels are irrelevant. All matters of fact, like the recurrent gas shortages, are brushed aside as products of monstrous conspiracies among the gas and oil companies.
If there is no compromise and no legislation, the prices of natural gas will continue to be set by the federal regulators. Ironically, people on each side are convinced that the regulators will favor them. They can't be right. Past history suggests strongly that regulation would produce a pattern of irregular rises in prices, but not as fast as the compromise would provide. The producers who want to gamble on a rapid jump in regulated price ceilings are probably wrong. The consumer lobbyists who are counting on a price rollback are certainly wrong.
What if there's no legislation? To meet the shortages, the United States will begin importing the Mexican gas at a price half again as high as the highest permitted to any American producer. Then it will turn to Algerian gas and Alaskan gas, both brought in at prices twice as high as the Mexican gas. All those costs will eventually find their way to you-know-who. The idea that continued regulation will protect the consumer, and guarantee him a continued supply of fuel at low prices, is the most expensive illusion of all. Meanwhile, the litigation and uncertainly churned up by the regulatory process will probably keep U.S. production lower than it would have been under legislation.
The gas compromise is nobody's ideal.In the long struggle to accomodate a great variety of conflicting views, it has become enormously complicated, and that kind of complexity always makes trouble. There is only one thing that you can really say for the compromise - but it is the only one thing that matters: The legislation would serve everybody, consumer and producer alike, better than the alternative, which is no legislation at all for years to come.