CONGRESS'S VOTES on the new Department of Energy suggest pretty clearly the kind of trouble ahead for the President's oil and gas policy. Congress is being forthrightly ambivalent and is decisively hedging. It wants the President to pull together the country's scattered energy plans, but not to pull so tightly that it bursts. It urges firm and aggressive leadership in these perilous times, but it also urges the administration to go easy on price rises. It demands strong, unified command in the new Department of Energy - but, on second thought, it would prefer to leave pricing in the hands of still another dinky commission, trussed up in regulatory procedures.
Most Americans know that oil and gas prices in this country are dangerously low. But most Americans also know that they'd prefer not to pay any more. That leaves things in a decidedly peculiar situation. As a result of past struggles by Congress to hold prices down, imported oil is now sold in the United States at a price $3.50 a barrel below its cost. This subsidy is not unrelated to the rapid increases in U.S. oil imports. As for natural gas, other laws keep it cheaper than oil although there is a national gas shortage that grows steadily more severe. If you wanted to discourage oil imports and diminish the gas shortage, it might occur to you to raise prices, might it not? It occurred to Mr. Carter, but Congress doesn't much care for the idea.
When Mr. Carter sent Congress the bill establishing the Energy Department, it was drafted to give the Secretary broad power over oil and gas prices. (Oil and gas together, incidentally, supply three-fourths of this country's total energy.) The Senate's Energy Committee took that power away from the Secretary and gave it instead to a new regulatory board to be set up within the department. But the senators acknowledged that this board ought not be totally insulated from the nation's policy. They provided that the Secretary could at least propose prices to the board, and that the President could veto its decisions. That's not perfection, but it's better than the present law that leaves gas prices to the independent Federal Power Commission to manage on obsolete legal standards.
The administration preferred the House version of the bill - until the House voted on it last week. One crucial amendment re-establishes the FPC, in effect, within the new department. This time there's no provision for policy suggestions from the Secretary or a veto by the President. The House vote appears to perpetuate the present gas pricing system, with all its unrealistic requirements and excruciating delays.
Congress has told Mr. Carter clearly that it doesn't want anything done very fast, or very forcefully, about the country's irrational pricing of oil and gas. Meanwhile, of course, gasoline consumption is rising unexpectedly rapidly and, although the cold winter is long past, the imports of oil into this country are 33 per cent higher than they were a year ago. Half of our oil now comes from abroad. Do Americans not believe, as the President has warned, that these steadily rising imports could lead to another crisis? Last week theGallup Poll reported that, among the people it questioned, only 52 per cent knew that the United States is importing any oil at all.