The six-month natural gas pricing deadlock was broken yesterday when Senate energy conferees joined House members in approving gradual removal of federal price controls.
By 10 to 7, the Senate group accepted a plan adopted by House conferees Tuesday 13 to 12 that provides for deregulation at the end of 1984.
The conferees must meet again, probably in about two weeks, to resolve lesser differences. But the issue of whether to continue regulation, as President Carter and the House had wanted, or to end controls as the Senate had voted, was the major dispute. The compromise accepted by the conferees - after six months of searching - paves the way for congressional approval of at least parts of Carter's stalled energy program.
But the pace apparently will remain slow. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich), floor manager of the gas bill in the House, said staffs will require nearly two months to put the agreement into legislative language. Then it may be filibustered in the Senate again, as it was last fall.
The plan calls for sending the gas settlement and three other parts of Carter's energy package previously agreed to by conferees - coal conversion, utility rate structure change and conservation programs - back to the Senate for final approval. Congressional leaders hops conferees can then agree on the stalled energy tax package in time to pass everything before Congress adjourns about Oct. 1 to campaign for the November elections.
Seven Democrats and three Republicans - Pate Domenici (N.M.), Mark Hatfield (Ore.) and James McClure (Idaho) - voted for the gas compromise yesterday, while four Republicans and three Democrats - James Abourezk (S.D.), John Durkin (N.H.) and Howard Metzenbaum (Ohio) - voted against it.
Opponents consisted of liberal Democrats who felt the settlement gave too much to gas producers and conservative Republicans who wanted deregulation sooner.
There is little agreement on what the settlement would mean in terms of extra revenue for industry. Estimates range from $9 billion to $50 billion by 1985.
The welhead price of newly discovered gas, now controlled at a ceiling of $1.49 per thousand cubic feet (MCF), would go immediately to nearly $2 per MCF, and then would rise by about 10 percent a year until 1985 when controls would be removed.
The president or Congress could reimpose controls for one 18-month period that would expire not later than the end of 1988.
The cost of gas to the consumer would not rise this much because the price of gas sold by the producer at the well, which is the only price now controlled, is less than one-third the total cost of gas delivered to consumers.%TAlso, residential consumers would be sheltered from wellhead price increases for a time by an incremental pricing system that would make big industrial customers bear this price increase up to a specified level. But residential gas bills could be increased by local regulatory agencies to cover other increased costs of distributors.
The conferees ended their long, hard struggle over gas with a flood of rhetoric that was sometimes angry or emotional.
Rep. Harley O. Staggers (D-W.Va.), conference chairman who has fought against deregulation during 30 years in Congress, supported the agreement as the best the conferees could do, but warned gas producers that if they withhold gas from the public it would be "treason against the interests of America," and that unwarranted price increases would produce legislation they wouldn't like.
Abourezk called the settlement a "monstrous sellout of the American consumer."
Sen. Clifford Hansen (R-Wyo.) opposed the compromise as giving only "lip service" to deregulation while adding more regulation and promising little more gas.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who took part in the Senate filibuster last fall trying to stop deregulation, voted for the compromise. He said he did not expect it to produce more gas, though it might shift some from the glutted intrastate market to the interstate market where there have been shortages. Bumpers said he supported it because it should reduce dependence on the $45 million in foreign oil which the United States imported last year and might reduce inflation.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who had fought deregulation for a quarter century, and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who speaks for gas producers, both supported the agreement on grounds that it would bring "certainty" to the uncertain area of gas pricing.