Governors in a few key coal-short states began paving the way yesterday for a mandatory cutback of electric power consumption, but most major industries and utilities continued with business as usual despite threats of a coal stoppage.
The major action came in Ohio, where Gov. James Rhodes announced plans to seek a mandatory 25 percent power cutback from that state's public utilities commission. Rhodes also proposed rules requiring utilities to share the power they acquire.
In West Virginia, officials decided to impose a 30 percent cutback, beginning Wednesday, on industries served by three power companies, including Potomac Edison, in the northern and eastern parts of the state. Action appeared imminent in Virginia as well.
However, most other states, industries and utilities appeared to be taking a wait-and-see attitude before adopting any drastic measures in the wake of President Carter's decision to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to try to get the miners back to work.
Both Maryland and Virginia postponed any action on an expected power cutback plan.
At the same time, major steel and auto producers also said they planned to wait before ordering any layoffs to see if the government is successful in getting the miners to cooperate.A handful of utilities in Ohio, including in metropolitan Columbus, announced industrial power cutbacks.
Reaction to Carter's decision to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act was relatively muted. On Capitol Hill, key Democratic leaders generally supported the president's action, many of them clearly relieved that Congress would not be asked to vote on the issue.
The stock market also reacted cautiously, slipping by 4.59 points to close at 742.72, as investors held back to see how many of the miners would obey a return-to-work order.
Throughout the hard-pressed north central region, where the coal strike has hit hardest, the word was that while industries were preparing for a major shutdown in coming weeks, they would not begin cutting back until they knew for sure whether emergency steps would be needed.
Only one state - Indiana - has been on emergency footing. Officials there announced that action last month in anticipation of a coal stoppage.
A spokesman for U.S. Steel Corp., the nation's largest steel producer, said that company had enough coal on hand to continue slightly-stepped-down operations for the foreseeable future. "I don't know what will happen," he said, "if we have further cuts."
Officials at Allegheny-Ludlum Steel Corp., which uses electric furnaces in its melting and rolling plants, said the firm already had cut back 10 percent or more, but was not planning any further shift. "We're watching the situation very carefully," he said.
Spokesmen for General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. both said no cutbacks were planned immediately. At the same time, however, auto industry officials predicted scattered - and later massive - shutdowns if the coal stoppage continues through mid-March.
James R. Schlesinger, the secretary of energy, told a Senate energy subcommittee that about 11 per cent of coal-consuming plans sampled reported supplies that will last 15 days or less.
Schlesinger said the "urgency of the situation" is "magnified by the fact that it will take a minimum of three weeks from the date of ratification of a new industry agreement before full coal deliveries are resumed."
Meanwhile, the Virginia Electric & Power Co. (Vepco) announced it has sent consumers a sharp increase in its fuel-adjustment charges on March utilities bills, in part because of the coal strike. A spokesman said the company had to use more oil to generate its power.
Department of Energy officials say they probably will be able to increase coal supplies to hard-hit east central states by one-half million tons a week in the next six or seven days, an increase from the present 1 million tons a week the region is receiving now. The agency said demand for coal has fallen because of conservation programs.
In hearings yesterday morning, Schlesinger told the Senate Energy subcommittee his agency expected some problems in transferring power to the region because of lack of experience in operating high-voltage equipment at low power levels.