The House yesterday tentatively approved two weakening changes in the bill to revise rules for offshore oil drilling but put off final action until today.
In other energy action, several Senate conferees met inconclusively as they have each day for more than a week trying to find a natural gas pricing proposal that a majority of them can accept, to break the continuing stalemate of President Carter's energy bill.
Senate Energy Committee Chairman Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash), who is the leading Senate supporter of Carter's plan to continue price controls on natural gas, is trying to win agreement on a plan that would phase out price controls over several years. The president would be empowered to reimpose controls, subject to congressional veto, if prices went too high.
Meanwhile, Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) and about 20 junior House Democrats met with House Seaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. to express concern that talk of compromise seemed to be drifting toward the interests of the oil industry and away from consumers. O'Neill told reporters he had assured the group that House conferees "won't give away the store." The House voted for Carter's plan, but the Senate voted for deregulation of the price of new natural gas.
The Outer Continental Shelf bill was killed in the House two years ago in part because of a provisiin that would empowered the government to do exploratory drilling to learn the potential worth of the underwater lands. The oil industry said this could put the government in the oil production business.
In an effort to lay this "red herring" to rest, the bill's managers agreed to accept an amendment that retreated to the language of the current, 25-year-old law. This appears to permit the government to do exploratory drilling, but it has never done so. Republicans pushed the amendment one step beyond what the bill's sponsors had planned. They took out the power of a government agency to do exploratory drilling, leaving it only the power to contract with a private firm to make tests.
Opponents of the bill then tried to cut back proposed new procedures for bidding for oil leases. Rep. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), the bill's floor manager, said this attempt to "promote competition" was the heart of the bill. Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.) said the oil industry's opposition to the bill was due entirely to the fact that "we're tampering with the bonus bill system. All the rest is window dreseing."
For the last 25 years most bidding for offshore oil leases has been by cash bonus. The bidder offering the most cash for the bid won. This meant most leases were sold to big compaines with large amounts of cash.
Murphy's bill sought to bring in providing that at least half the leases must be bid on by different methods, such as sharing profits with the government rather than putting up a lot of cash before finding any oil.
smaller companies with less cash by
A Republican attempt to change this to say that between 10 and 30 percent of the bidding must be by methods other than the cash bonus was rejected, 207 to 196. But a second attempt, changing this to between 20 to 50 percent, was approved 219 to 188.
All of yesterday's actions could be reversed before final passage of the bill.