A House Government Operations subcommittee gave President Carter most of what he wanted last week when it approved a bill to create a department of energy.
But there was one request it rejected - a proposal to transfer regulation of coal slurry pipelines from the Interstate Commerce Commission to the new department.
That last may not have vowed the man in the street. But it was a good, succinct example of the kind of jockeying going on at the Capitol these days as hundreds of interest groups - large and small, well-known and not - fight for position on energy.
The main players in all this - and the most visible - are the nation's energy companies. In this obscure, illustrative case, however, it was the railroads, the major transporters of coal, trying to ward off competition from a new type of pipeline that could move crushed coal hundreds of miles by water pressure at less cost.
The coal and utility interests backing the slurry pipelines need legislation giving them eminent domain powers to acquire rights-of-ways. They recently hired W. Pat Jennings, former member and clerk of the House, to head up a drive for a bill now in the House Interior Committee. The railroads are fighting it as hard as they can.
The President's proposal to switch regulation from the ICC to the department of energy has nothing to do with whether the pipelines can operate, but with the rates they eventually may charge. The railroads apparently decided they would be hurt if slurry regulation was transferred from the railroad-oriented ICC to the "Mission-oriented" new energy department.
Harry J. Breithaupt Jr., general counsel of the Association of American Railroads testified that it would be unwise to "mix promotion with regulation." He said the same agency - ICC - should regulate competing forms of transportation. These issues should be considered by people "who understand what transportation is all about," he said.
A slurry spokesman said the slurry promoters have no objection to having their rates regulated by the ICC. Their main concern is that the eminent domain bill provides that certificates permitting them to operate by approved by the Secretary of the Interior, not, as the railroads want, by the ICC.
The House subcommittee went along with the argument that regulation of coal slurry pipelines was more a transportation than an energy matter. Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex) said James R. Schlesinger, the President's chief energy adviser who would become secretary of the new department, said he was pleased with the bill as approved.
But a more important part of the President's reorganization proposal empowering the secretary to set the price of natural gas has run into heavy going in the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
Committee Chairman Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) said Friday that when his committee meets today to start voting on the energy department bill he and Sens. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.) and Jacob K. Javits (R-NY) will propose that this power be placed in a three-member energy regulatory board within the department.
Under their proposal, the secretary would have input. He could compel the board to act on his proposals and would have veto power over its decision. If the secretary and the board were unable to reacha mutually agreeable decision the dispute would be referred to Congress for a decision.
But Ribicoff said the four senators felt vesting price setting powers in the secretary in addition to all the other powers given him would place too much power in the hands of a single individual. The administration wants a mechanism for speedier action than provided by the independent Federal Power Commission that would be abolished by its bill. Ribicoff said permitting the secretary to act after "only a brief hearing" would go too far in the other direction away from "impartial decision-making."
This issue has been simmering in Ribicoff's committee for more than a week. A week ago Friday Ribicoff called his committee together to seek a consensus on the bill. A staff assistant said that on the basis of that discussion the staff prepared a draft bill, called a committee print, last weekend for committee consideration last Thursday. It contained the provision for a three-member board to set prices.
Last Monday Ribicoff went to the White House to explain the new draft bill to Carter and Schlesinger. They didn't like the proposed change.