The House Democratic leadership hurriedly yanked the Department of Energy's principal authorization bill from floor consideration yesterday in the face of growing controversy over an amendment to raise prices on a substantial portion of U.S. oil by $3 billion a year.
The chief sponsor of the drive to lift price controls, House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex), told reporters that the bill was pulled off the calendar because of warnings that adoption of his amendment might trigger a collapse of President Carter's energy program.
"We've just decided to step back at this time," Wright said after a midafternoon meeting in Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill's office with chairman Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) of the Senate Energy Committee and others.
Jackson reportedly told the House leaders that some senators might refuse to approve the compromise bill to remove federal price controls from natural gas by 1984 if so much oil were decontrolled now.
If the gas bill falls, most of the rest of the Carter plan is likely to come unraveled, too.
Yesterday's action in the Houe as Carter, at the economic summit in Bonn, reiterated his determination to raise U.S. oil prices to the world level by 1980, as a deterrent to consumption.
Wright's amendment would decontrol more than a million domestically produced barrels of crude oil a day and send prices up to $14 a barrel. Most of the oil in question is now controlled at $5.45 per 42-gallon barrel.
Declaring that at present prices too many oil wells are being abandoned, the Texan made plain that he was perfectly willing to let the issue simmer for a while, especially since Energy Secretary James R. Schlesigner is striving to accomodate him administratively.
Sclesinger offered last week, under authority he already has, to decontrol 20 percent of the production from the so-called "marginal wells" that Wright and his colleagues want exempt completely. When the House sponsors of the drive turned that down, sources said Schlesinger responded by promising to decontrol 40 percent.
The House majority leader would not confirm the details of Schlesinger's latest offer, but it might well prove satisfactory so long as the energy secretary takes it out of the realm of "vague conversation" and puts it writing in the Federal Register.
"I would be satisfied when I saw the regulation," Wright said. "All I want is some hard and fast, clearcut definite plan . . . not just conversation." He said Schlesinger has been promising relief for the "independent" operators for the oil wells in question for three years but has yet to do anything.
An aide to O'Neill said the Energy Department authorization, scheduled for debate yesterday afternoon under a rule making the Wright amendment in order, had been pulled back indefinitely.
Sen. Jackson reportedly told House leaders that the gas deregulation bill could become a casualty either in the Senate-House conference, where it has been sitting for months, or on the Senate floor, where he said he doesn't have enough votes to cut off a filibuster.
The gas bill, which for months impeded the rest of Carter's energy package, was approved by House conferees in May by a vote of only 13 to 12 and by Senate conferees by a vote of 10 to 7. But the conference report is still awaiting their signatures.
There were indications last week that some House conferees, such as Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) were so "aghast" at the Wright amendment, which would provide U.S. oilmen with a bonanza of more than $3 billion a year, than they might withhold signatures from the conference report.
Wright said yesterday, however, that among the conferees "there isn't a House member who would take that hardline position," including critics of his amendment such as Eckhardt and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
Eckhardt told a reporter later that "I'm not threatening to get off anything," but he once again protested that the $21 billion cost of the Wright amendment by 1985 "dwarfs what we have been talking about" in terms of natural gas deregulation "for the last six months."
"It doesn't take much prescience to say that's going to raise serious concerns among the House conferees," Eckhardt said. He has indicated, however, that he might not object to some administrative relief for the oilmen on the part of the administration.
The Wright amendment would simply broaden the definition of small, so-called "stripper wells" from those producing 10 or fewer barrels a day to include wells producing up to 35 barrels a day.