House-Senate conferees on natural gas pricing broke up indefinitely yesterday because the deadlocked Senate delegation is unable to muster a majority for anything.
Both delegations accepted a proposal by Rep.Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) that the conference stand in recess until the Senate has an offer to make to reconcile their widely different bills or unless the conference chairman, Rep. Harley O. Staggers (D.-W.Va.), thinks it worthwhile to call them back. Staggers asked members to hold themselves available until Christmas.
Unless the Senate conferees, who are divided 9 to 9, can find the common ground that has eluded them all year, this may be the end of the energy conference for this year. Congress intends to adjourn today and come back for its second session Jan. 19. All pending legislation will remain alive, but deadline pressures will be off, and the energy bill may have even tougher going as congress gives its attention to such other issues as taxes and the Panama Canal treaties.
Some of the natural gas conferees were called to the White House last evening to meet with the President and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. Among the participants were Rep. Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio), chairman of the ad hoc House Energy Committee: his Senate counterpart, Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), an outspoken advocate of deregulation of all gas prices.
All Senate conferees appear firmly dug in - half for President Carter's plan to continue regulation of natural gas prices at a higher level than now and extend regulation to intrastate gas, and half to remove price controls from newly discovered gas, which is what the full Senate voted for. The House conferees are solidly with Carter.
Gas pricing appears to be the key to getting agreement on the major parts of Carter's program designed to save energy. The other major parts are taxes - on crude oil, on industrial use of oil and natural gas, and on sales of big cars that get low gasoline mileage.
Tax conferees have tentatively agreed on a gas guzzler tax, but apparently do not plan to act on the crude oil tax and perhaps not the industrial use tax until the natural gas issue is resolved. The House approved the crude oil tax, but the Senate rejected it and instead approved tax credits to encourage production and conservation. Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) wants either to marry the House tax to the Senate credits or to win an increase in the price oil for his support of the tax.
The non-tax conferees have approved three other portions of Carter's over-all plan, but these have less potential for saving oil than the taxes. They agreed to require state regulatory commissions to consider electric utility rate structures that save energy, such as lower rates for running equipment at night thn at peak hours. They approved a program designed to require industry and utilities to convert from oil and gas to coal, but included a long list of exemptions. And they agreed to a catch-all conservation program that among other things, would impose energy standards for major home appliances and order local utilities to help customers insulate their homes. None of these will be put to a final congressional vote until next year.
The natural gas conferees have been meeting off and one for nearly two weeks without making progress. On Tuesday the House conferees tried to get things moving by offering to give way on some non-price issues concerning the intrastate market. But they did not deal with the key issues of regulation, price, intrastate price controls or the definition of new gas that would qualify for higher prices.
At yesterday's session Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) presented a proposal for phased deregulation that was drafted by a minority of the 18 Senate conferees. It would deregulate new gas after four years, during which time the price could rise to nearly triple the present $1.46 per thousand cubic feet. The President could reimpose controls if they went above specified levels, subject to a veto by either house of Congress.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who supports the President, congratulated his Louisiana colleague "for keeping a straight face during your presentation."
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who guided the President's bill through the House, called Johnston's plan "this forlorn proposal."
Johnston tried to get the House conferees to consider his plan even though it had not been put to a Senate vote. They refused and voted to recess.