THE SECRETARY of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, has now received the report that the ordered on the charges about natural gas illegally withheld from the market. Those are serious charges. In view of the present climate of public suspicion and hostility toward the oil and gas companies, prompt publication of the Interior Department's findings is essential.
Instead, remarkably, the department says only that it is thinking about whether to let the public see it. The White House suggests that perhaps the President will want to talk with Mr. Andrus about it - sometime over the next week. That would be an expensive delay, compounding consumers' doubts that the winter's gas shortage might have been artificially rigged. As we have said in this space before, it was a genuine shortage. But if Americans are going to be asked to cut down consumption of their cheapest and cleanest fuel, they are entitled to demonstration that the need is real.
The immediate reason for holding up the release of the report is, apparently, that it contains proprietary information about the gas reserves in question. That is, it contains highly detailed geological data that producers have gathered at considerable expense, and it belongs to them; some of it would be valuable to their competitors in bidding and drilling on adjacent properties. If the companies could bring themselves to abandon their legal rights to secrecy in these cases, they would be paying a small price to improve their industry's public standing. If not, the immediate solution would be merely to scissor out the kind of detail that is legally protected. The department would do better to issue the report with deletions than to delay it while the rumors and doubts accumulate.
It's not simple. The charges of withholding natural gas do not lend themselves to short, snappy yes-or-no answers. For example, state and federal authorities have firm both gas and oil, it will commonly produce more of both - in the long run - if the producer takes the oil first and uses the gas pressure to force the oil through the pores in the rock. That means deferring the production of the gas. You could argue that the producer is withholding gas that consumers need right now. But you could also argue, conversely, that the producer is following sound conservation practices that will consumers much more fuel over the life of the well.
Gas wells are sometimes capped because they do not produce enough to justify the cost of a pipeline to collect it. Is that right or wrong? Sometimes wells corrode and collapse with some gas still in the reservoir, but not enough to justify a new well. We don't have any idea what's in the report to Secretary Andrus. But we assume that it's full of this kind of question of economics, technology and, in the end, judgment. Perhaps he'd like something a bit more clear-cut to lay before the country. But it's precisely the complexity of this issue that the country needs to know about.