President Carter's long-stalled energy bill took another small step forward yesterday as House and Senate conferees settled their final differences on natural gas pricing.
More than six months after they began talking about the gas issue and three weeks after they approved a compromise to remove federal price controls on newly discovered gas by 1985, the conferees yesterday resolved a list of minor issues that they had skipped over while trying to settle the central issue of price controls.
The final action would provide for civil penalties up to $5,000 for violation of federal regulations that a "reasonable man" should have known existed. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), leader of Seante conferees, looked around at the weary conferees who had been butting heads since before Christmas and said that was "a good note to end on."
It has been one of the most difficult House-Senate issues to resolve, since billions of dollars are at stake and the two bodies went in opposite directions on the question of deregulation. The House approved Carter's plan to continue controls at a higher level and extend them from the interstate market to cover intrastate gas, consumed in the state where produced. The Senate voted to deregulate new gas in two years.
The ceiling price on the first sale of gas at the wellhead is now $1.49 per 1,000 cubic feet (MCF). Under the compromise, the ceiling on new gas would rise immediately to about $1.93 per MCF and would go up annually by about 10 percent, assuming inflation of 6 percent. Controls on new gas would expire at the end of 1984 but could be reimposed for one 18-month period by the president or Congress and extend to not later than the end of 1988.
The complicated gas proposal must now be reduced to legislative language, which may take a month. The staff also must finish putting in writing three parts of Carter's energy package - dealing with conservation, coal conversion and utility-rate structures - that the conferees agreed on last fall.
There remains one major unresolved issue in the non-tax part of the energy bill. The senate voted to ban production and sale of gas-guzzling cars. The House approved Carter's plan to tax, but not ban, inefficient cars. The conferees must meet again on that.
Once those four parts of the package have been written they will be sent first to the Senate and then to the House for final approval. The gas plan probably will run into another Senate filibuster but should win ultimate approval since it is deregulation. The House conferees approved the gas plan by 13 to 12, with liberals opposing it for giving away too much to produces and consevatives opposing it because it would not deregulate soon enough.
But the gas compromise is supported by both the leading House advocate of gas regulation, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), and the leading champion of the gas industry, Rep. Joe D. Waggonner Jr. (D-La.).
Still to be resolved is the tax part of Carter's energy package, and that may prove more difficult than gas.
The centerpiece of the president's program was a tax on domestic crude oil that would force its price up to world levels to cut use. The House passed it but the Senate did not. The administration is still trying to salvage the crude oil tax, but may have to rebate large parts of the revenue to the oil industry to get it by Senate conferees led by Sen. Russell B. Long (D-L a.).
The tax conference has been recessed since Thanksgiving while Long waited to see how the flight over natural gas came out. His state is a big producer of oil and gas. Resumption of the tax conference may wait until the gas plan has been reduced to writing and Long has seen allthe fine print.