FOR SEVERAL MONTHS now, the Carter energy bill has been caught fast in the tangled politics of natural-gas pricing. Nothing will move forward, it appears, until there's an agreement on gas prices - and progress towardd an agreement is both slow and highly uncertain. Recently, in this space, we dicussed the rising possibility that Congress will fail altogether tto pass the energy bill. Today we shall sketch out some of the reasons for the impassed over gas pricing - and argue, once again, that there's plenty of room for a decent compromise.
The splitt among the Senate conferees - originally 9 votes to 9 but now, because of the death of Sen. Lee Metcalf, 9 to 8 - has come to symbolize the standoff in Congress. That's unfortunate, because neither of those ideological factions forms the base for a bill that would be accepted by the House or the country with the broad suppoet that an effective energy policy requires. Sen. Heny M. Jackson (D-Wash.), chairman of the Energy Committee, has now commenced, in a gingerly way, another attempt at a solution. This time the idea is to write off the most vehement and adamant of the conferees: Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and James Abourezk D-S.D.) on the side that wants permanent and rigid price controls, Sens. Dewey F. Bartlett (R-Okla.) and J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) among those who want no controls at all on new gas. Perhaps it will be possible to construct a majority somewhere in the middle; that, at any rate, is the hope on which the whole energy bill is now riding.
In this part of the country, it's generally assumed that gas pricing is a simple tug-of-war between the major oil companies and the consumers. That's wrong. The most effective opposition to the present bill is coming from the thousands of smaller producers and dealers - the independents - who fear that the bill would hurt them and favor the big companies.
They have a point. Present federal controls affect only the price of gas that crosses state lines. The present federal ceiling is $1,48 per thousand cubis feet, and Mr. Carter proposes lifting it to $1.75. But in the unregulated intrastate market, the price is up around $2. The energt bill would extend the controls to all gas, including the intrastate markets. For the producers who sell in those intrastate markets, it would mean a roll-back. Offshore, where very big companies do most of the drilling, the gas is automatically under federal controls. But on shore, most of the new gas goes to the unregulated market, and most of the producers are the independents. They aren't as rich as the major companies. But they aren't as rich as the major companies. But they are very numerous, and far more influential in Congress.
Price in only part of the quarrel. Under contols, the top price would go only to newly discovered gas. How do you define newly discovered gas - as opposed to gas from a new well in known field? The question is fairly easy to resolve in offshore drilling. It's much harder on shore, where many of the independents make a highly ricky living by finding the pockets of gas that bigger companies have missed in their sweeps through the fields.
Sensible compromise would not try to roll back prices. It would encourage produces to keep exploring in old fields on shore, as well as new fields offshore. It would protect consumers from sudden jolts in price. But it would keep the ceilings moving steadily upward until the price was floating free. It would also provide standby protection against emergencies and panics, by permitting the price to move by only a given percentage in any one year.
The principle of a deregulated price would be balanced with the principle of change that is gradual and predictable, rather than sharp and disruptive. But to write that compromise, Congress will have to take the bill away from the zealots who would rather have no bill at all than one that displeased them in any respect.