Senate energy conferees trying to break a three-month deadlock resumed hard bargaining yesterday on the natural gas pricing dispute but remain divided on several major issues.
President Carter's omnibus energy bill, which was his top legislative priority last year, has passed House and Senate in very different forms but has been hung up in a House-Senate conference since last fall because the evenly divided Senate conferees have not been able to agree on whether to continue or remove price controls from natural gas.
The House approved Carter's plan to continue price controls at a higher level, while the Senate voted with the industry to remove controls from newly discovered onshore gas after two years. The conference is the place where such differences are supposed to be compromised, but so far the Senate members have been unable to take the first step of making a proposal to the House.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), Senate Energy Committee chairman, who supports the president, held a series of fruitless bargaining sessions with other senators for three weeks before making a trip to China in mid-February.
Yesterday, after the second day-long meeting in a row with senators on both sides of the issue, Jackson said he feels they are making progress and can eventually reach an agreement but are still divided by several tough issues.
Carter's supporters among the Senate conferees are ready to agree to deregulation over a period of about seven years with a provision that the president or Congress could reimpose controls for a two-year period if prices rise too high. Still in dispute is the new starting price ceiling and the annual price escalator.
Carter would raise the price ceiling on new gas from the present $1.48 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) to $1.75 per mcf and permit it to rise with the price of domestic crude oil.
The House approved this. Senate conferees are talking about a starting price ceiling of $1.84 to $1.88 per mcf, depending upon the amount of the annual price escalator allowed, according to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.).
Bumpers, a strong supporter of continued controls, said he thinks the chances of reaching an agreement are better than they have ever been.
Tougher questions that the Senate conferees have not been able to agree on, said Jackson, are issues such as the definition of new gas which would qualify for a higher price and eventual deregulation, whether to require incremental pricing which would make industry rather than residential users absorb price increases up to a certain point, and the amount by which the price ceiling should be permitted to rise each year. The figures most often suggested for the annual increase have been the cost of inflation plus 3 or 4 percent.
Jackson thought he had an agreement early in February, but the Republicans and Sens. Bennett Johnston (La., and Wendall Ford (Ky.) held back in hopes of getting more concessions. Jackson said that if that happens again that will be the end of efforts to get a gas bill as far as he is concerned.