House energy conferees said yesterday they have finally put together a majority for gradual deregulation of new natural gas.
They will meet Tuesday to vote and find out for sure.
The multibillion-dollar gas issue has divided House and Senate energy conferees for more than six months and has delayed all progress on President Carter's omnibus energy package.
Four weeks ago a team of negotiators on the gas bill announced agreement on a plan to remove federal price controls from newly discovered gas by 1985. But that agreement threatened to break apart because of dispute among three House conferees from producing states.
The three - Reps. Joe D. Waggonner Jr. (D-La.), Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) and Charles Wilson (D-Tex) - could not agree on a provision affecting the regulation of intrastate gas - gas produced and consumed in the same state.
Negotiations among the three went on for several weeks. The dispute was settled late Thursday, they said, in part because of mediation efforts by Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr.
If the agreement holds next week and no new problem arises, House conferees should vote at least 13 to 12 for the deregulation compromise. The 17 Senate conferees would also be expected to approve it by a close vote.
If that occurs, it could free most of Carter's energy package for final action by both houses. A separate energy tax bill remains to be acted on by other House and Senate conferees. That bill includes Carter's controversial proposal for a tax on crude oil, which called the centerpiece of his package. That crude oil tax, which was approved by the House but not by the Senate, is considered to be in serious trouble.
The natural gas pricing issue has proved to be the most difficult element of Carter's package for Congress to resolve.
The House had approved Carter's plan to continue regulation of interstate gas prices, but the Senate voted to deregulate new gas. Informal negotiations were carried on for much of this year until an agreement was reached at a private session in April.
But the dispute among Waggonner, Eckhardt and Wilson, whose votes are considered necessary to get the 13-to-12 majority for deregulation, has delayed final action.
Their three-way negotiations, which saw continually shifting coalitions, involved regional politics and economics and personalities.
Waggonner, one of the most conservative members of the House, represents the interest of Louisiana gas producers. Wilson who represents east Texas also defended the producers' position. Eckhardt a Houston lawyer spoke for the interests of Texas gas consumers. Eckhardt and Wilson were once close colleagues in the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic party when they served in the state legislature together. But they have fallen out over oil and gas issues.
The three have been fighting over the question of intrastate gas pricing. Intrastate gas is not regulated by the federal government but would be until at least 1985 under the pending compromise.
The issue is called redetermination. If for example, intrastate gas is being sold under contract in Texas for $1.80 per thousand cubic feet and another Texas producer contracts to sell gas within the state for $2, the price of the first contract can be pushed up to $2 - if it contains a redetermination clause.
Eckhardt has insisted that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission be empowered to hold down such increases for fear that a sky-high price in an obscure contract might push up the price for all Texas gas to an unreasonably high price. Wilson and Waggonner opposed this. They also opposed efforts to continue indefinitely regulation over old intrastate gas. They thought they were getting deregulation and considered it a poor swap to put any unregulated intrastate gas under permanent controls.
The agreement, said Wilson, is that intrastate gas now flowing under contract would be dergulated when existing contract expire.During the life on the contract the price could not be raised above specified levels. And no new redetermination clauses could be inserted in contracts in the future.
The deregulation agreement scheduled to be put to a conference vote next week, it is estimated, would add $9 billion to producer revenues by 1985 an increase of 6 percent over estimated revenues under current laws.