The House Commerce Committee voted 22 to 20 yesterday in favor of the Carter administration's controversial plan for higher East Coast oil subsidies.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee on energy and power, called the administration's timing "regrettable," but urged his colleagues to vote for the subsidy with the understanding that the Department of Energy would not implement it for at least 90 days.
Meanwhile, Dingell said he would move to hold hearings on the problems and defects of the intricate entitlements program under which the subsidies would be provided.
Republicans on the committee charged that the administration proposal was a transparent effort to pick up votes for President Carter's battered energy package, now stalled over natural gas prices, but they fell one vote short of reporting out a bill to block the East Coast subsidies.
Rep. W. Henson Moore (R-La.), sponsor of the move to overturn the higher payments for the import-dependent East, said he would make another effort on the House floor. With proxy votes carrying the day, the committee had voted 24 to 16 last week to uphold the administration, but the issue was reopened yesterday, as expected, on a motion by Rep. Martin A. Russo (D-Ill.).
Moore distributed a table, based on 1976 statistics, calculating that consumers in California would pay $37.7 million a year more in gasoline, heating oil and residual fuel bills to increase the subsidies for the East Coast. Consumers in Texas would pay $21.4 million more and those in Ohio $16.4 million more, Moore charged, while consumers in Massachusetts would be subsidized an additional $47.3 million, and those in New York an extra $19.1 million.
The changes would come about through the government's entitlements program, which was devised to deal with price disparities created by the federal oil pricing rules. The regulations force refiners using domestic oil, which is cheaper, to pay subsidies (entitlements) to refiners and importers along the East Coast to offset the higher prices of the foreign oil they depend on.
The administration's proposal, which the Energy Department plans to put into effect administratively, would cost the rest of the country an estimated $500 million a year.
Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D-N.Y.) urged the committee not to "penalize the East because they have to, by reason of an international situation, pay higher prices" for imported oil. Moore, however, said there was no price increase looming to justify the higher subsidies. He said he welcomed Dingell's promises of a congressional inquiry into the entitlements program, but protested that this would not stop the increased payments for the East Coast.
The debate came as the House Commerce Committee began completing its work on the Energy Department's civilian authorization bill.
Energy Department officials, meanwhile, have protested that an amendment adopted last week by the Senate Energy and National Resources Commitee "could only reduce the productivity of our audit and investigatory activities."
In a May 12 letter to Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) made public yesterday, the chief of the department's economic regulatory administration, David J. Bardin, said committee-approved strictures concerning retroactive interpretations could put a difficult burden on the department and, by laying down new requirements, "delay ongoing audits that were nearing completion."
Bardin also expressed concern over a $3.5 million cut the Senate committee has made in the office of enforcement's authorization request on the grounds that it has been auditing too many small companies.
According to Bardin, the emphasis has already shifted and the loss of the $3.5 million "would, instead, enable many large firms to avoid timely audit." The office of enforcement deals with all facets of the petroleum industry except the 35 biggest refiners. It thus supervises, Bardin noted, at least six "small" refiners with annual sales in excess of $200 million, 15 independent crude producers with annual sales averaging $428 million, and eight independent natural gas companies with average annual sales of $322 million.