RIGHT HAND, left hand: The federal government, with great [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , keeps price controls clamped on natural gas produced in this country. Meanwhile, the same federal government is sending money abroad to encourage imports of natural gas at prices far higher than any American producer can legally get. Does one hand know what the other is doing?

The Export-Import Bank of the United States, a federal agency, has approved a $340 million loan to Premex, the Mexican oil and gas company, for an extensive pipeline. There's an element of subsidy in this loan, since the interest rate is somewhat lower than private lenders would offer. The pipeline would deliver Mexican gas to the Texas border at a price based on the equivalent cost of fuel oil. Currently, that works out to $2.60 per thousand cubic feet of gas. The price ceiling for American gas producers is $1.47. There have been hints that the forthcoming energy legislation, now in conference, will move theat ceiling up to something a little over $2 - but even that is one-fourth less than the cost of an equivalent amount of oil.

Sen. Adlai Stevenson (D-Ill.) has asked the Ex-Im Bank to hold up the loan until Secretary of Energy James R. Schlesinger has had a chance to review the price agreement. Sen. Stevenson considers the price for this gas, and the principle of linking it to oil prices, to be unreasonable. Readers of this page will not be astonished to see that we take the opposite view. As we have argued many times, the present ceilings on energy prices result in waste, shortages and excessive imports. But there is one point on which we entirely agree with the senator. It is plainly absurd for the government to insist on a two-price system, with the higher price always going to the foreign producers.

Mexico has large resources of gas and oil, and it makes altogether good sense for the U.S. government to lend the capital to develop them. Since the Ex-Im Bank's $340 million loan would support Mexico's purchase of some $400 million in U.S. equipment and services for this pipeline, there's every reason to go ahead with the project. What's a fair price for the gas? Mexico's wealth per capita is one-twelfth that of the United States, and Mexico's is entitled to full market value. That means a price no less than that of oil. The Mexican pipeline project is only the latest example of a fundamental anomaly in American energy policy. The anomaly is this country's habit of valuing its own energy less than the increasing flow of the oil and gas that it buys abroad.