President Carter's emergency bill to ease the natural gas crisis in the icy cities of the North was approved by the Senate last night and cleared the House Commerce Committee by voice vote with one major change.
The Senate vote was 91 to 2.
Meanwhile, reports sent to the Federal Power Commission yesterday by 29 interstate pipelines indicate that the factories closed in the 11 states hit hardest, by the shortage will not reopen for at least two weeks.
An estimated 300,000 workers laid off for the past week in seven of the 11 states will be idled another two weeks by the shortage, according to reports received by the FPC. An estimated 200,000 workers laid off in factory closings in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina will probably be out of work the entire month of February.
Acting in a crisis atmosphere and with the temperature in the chamber turned down to a chilly 65, the Senate, at the urging of Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) and the bill's floor manager, Adlai E. Stevenson (D-Ill.), batted down one controversial amendment after another in order to speed passage.
Stevenson and other senators stressed that the emergency bill, which would permit some interstate sales of natural gas without price controls, won't cause any new gas production. But they said it, could help reduce the immediate shortage of gas, which is threatening individuals with loss of home head, and communities with shutdowns of schools and hospitals, by allowing the President to divert interstate supplies of gas from low-priority users in some areas to high-priority users in others.
Under the bill, low-priority users are those using the fuel for industrial heating factory and office-building heating (where alternative fuels could be used), and the heating of water for a variety of purposes ("boiler fuel").
High-priority users are homes, hospitals, schools and small business. In effect, the bill would let the President divert gas being carried by an interstate pipeline to a low-priority area to a pipeline that needs it for high-priority customers. This provision would expire April 30.
The second key provision of the bill permits interstate pipelines and local gas companies to buy gas normally used within the state where produced - called "intrastate gas" - and ship it across state lines for emergency use without it being subjected to the currect price limits applicable to gas shipped across state lines. Such shipments would be allowed until Aug. 1.
This would allow energy-hungry cities in the North to tap a big supply of gas in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma or other producing states which is being sold locally to avoid the price limit applicable to gas that moves across state lines.
At present, about 12 trillion cubic feet of gas annually is sold in interstate commerce at a maximum producer price of $1,644 per thousand cubic feet (set by the Federal Power Commission) for new gas.
About 6 trillion cubic feet is used within the states where produced and is selling for about $2.00 to $2.25 because the federal ceiling doesn't apply to this "intrastate gas."
Under the bill, the pipelines supplying the North and the local gas companies in the North could bid for this gas, without being subject to the $1.44 limit.
In the Senate version, which the administration prefers, no ceiling was placed on the amount that could be paid for this "intrastate gas" by such bidders during the emergency period.
However, the House Commerce Committee voted 21 to 17 to impose a ceiling ranging from $2.02 to $2.22 on such sales, or higher if the President found it necessary.
The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) for fear that gas-short Northern companies and pipelines would bid the price out of sight, depriving consumers in Texas and other producer states of their supplies, or driving their prices up to what Rep. Robert C. Krueger (D-Tex.) called "potentially desperately high levels."
An administration spokesman said, "This reduces our flexibility; we would prefer the original bill."
he House Commerce Committee bill is expected to go to the House floor today under suspension of the rules procedure, requiring a two-thirds vote. Then, unless one chamber gives in right way on the Eckhardt amendment, the bill would go to a House-Senate conference to resolve differences between the two versions.
Although the Senate took up the bill early in the day with its ultimate passage a foregone conclusion, it spent the whole day in argument about whether the bill is good for consumers in both the short and long run.
The reports reaching the FPC from pipelines yesterday once again indicated the crisis had eased, but only because factories and schools stayed closed and drew only enough gas to keep their pipes from freezing. Customers still drawing gas were turning their theirmostats down, another reason for an easing of the crisis.
Pipelines serving Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina indicated to the FPC that they would not have enough "deliverable" gas in the next two weeks to allow closed factories to reopen. "Deliverable" gas is the gas pipelines can count on getting from producing well sin Louisiana and Texas and from their pipelines follow.
Washington Post staff Writer Thomas O'Toole contributed to this article.