With at least $28.5 billion at stake, the natural gas deregulation bill has fractured the political landscape - pitting big oil companies against smaller ones, farmers against industry, pipeline companies against their customers.
However, the lines are not yet clearly drawn, with many major players still publicly neutral. But after the final draft of the compromise bill is made public this week, probably tomorrow, and as the Senate showdown nears the lineups will form quickly.
Who favors the bill for phased-out control of natural gas prices? Big oil companies, although their support is low-profiled and far from unanimous.
"We feel this bill at least gives us some certainty, which we don't have now," said Wayne Harmon, director of federal agency relations for Gulf. "We know where we are going. It will at least get a bill on the books and then we can work to improve it."
Gulf is one of the few major oil companies to publicly declare its support. Most others are waiting.
"Since we haven't seen the final draft of the legislation, we can only wait and see whether it will be better than no legislation at all," said Tom Denman of Shell. "We have been taking a neutral course - we aren't for it, and we aren't against it."
But Jim Flug of Energy Action, a group lobbying against the bill, said the wait-and-see posture by some majors is just a ploy: "They're afraid to endorse it publicly because they are afraid to queer the deal, but clearly they are working for it."
Major producers would stand to gain handsomely from the compromise bill. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), a leading advocate of deregulation for the oil and gas companies, declared that, "Compared to the president's program, compared to the House bill, compared to what we feared and, frankly, even compared to what we had hoped, this is a magnificent bill . . . ."
Johnston made the comments in a June 5 speech to a group of Texas producers. He went on to tell them that of the 10 provisions most important to natural gas companies, "we achieved what we were trying to achieve on each of those 10."
Nonetheless, some companies bucked their oil industry colleagues and are fighting the bill.
"We opposed it before and we are still opposed to it," said Terry Rice, director of legislative affairs for Conoco. "We think it is a bad bill and we have said so . . . There are some people with the guts to speak out on it."
John Swearingen, chairman of the board of Amoco, criticized the bill in similarly harsh language.
"If anyone is tempted to assume that the compromise principles will solve the natural gas problem, let me say quickly that he is being deceived." Swearingen told stockholders. He called the measure "a regulatory disaster."
The lineup of who is for the compromise plan and who is against it will be critical in the next few weeks.
It is expected that the compromise gas decontrol bill worked out in May by House-Senate conferees will be brought to the Senate floor within the next week to 10 days. There, pro-consumer liberals led by James Abourezk (D-S.D.) and possibly joined by some pro-oil conservatives will filibuster.
Administration sources think they can break the filibuster on the third or fourth try. But the outcome rests heavily on which interest groups turn up the heat on their senators.
Independent producers, most of them located in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma, are helping to lead the fight against the bill.
"We prefer immediate deregulation," says Lloyd Unsell, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a group of 5,100 small producers.
The bill phases in deregulation over a seven-year period while Unsell wants the government to back off immediately from natural gas controls. During the transition under the bill there would be government supervision of the natural gas industry and many producers fear the regulatory burden the bill would create.
The compromise plan also would bring intrastate gas - where many of the smaller companies do much of their business - under federal price control for the first time.
"Most independent producers - I'd say 99.5 percent of them - are relative small entrepreneurs and don't have the lawyers and accountants and Washington representatives to cope with the regulation that is built into this bill," Unsell said. "Our people feel they would spend all their time in Washington."
Consumer and labor groups oppose the bill, but for reasons that would make Unsell cringe: they think deregulation is just a code word for bigger industry profits.
"The bill is a ripoff," declared Ellen Berman, director of the energy policy task force of the Consumer Federation of America. "Estimates go as high as $35 billion in increases over current prices, and there is no assurance of new supplies."
Despite a common interest, Berman said her group had not worked with any industry groups that oppose the compromise.
"Those groups want nothing at all. They would rather kill this bill and take their chances with the next Congress. Their goals are so different from ours we felt it would be anomalous to join them."
The AFL-CIO has consistently opposed deregulation of natural gas prices. "We haven't taken a careful look at the bill, but our position is clear," said ANdrew Biemiller, director of the legislative department. "We don't want any damn thing to do with it."
Strong support for the bill has come from two groups that would be winners if the compromise is adopted - farmers and pipeline companies.
The National Council of Farmer's Cooperatives worked for several years to be sure a provision was included in the natural gas bill guaranteeing farmers and agricultural processors priority treatment in the case of a shortage. The compromise bill includes that guarantee.
However, the farmers' priority stirred strong opposition from other natural gas users. One outgrowth is the Process Gas Consumers Group formed in May by General Motors, Nabisco and Cone Mills. It now includes 14 major companies, contributing $5,000 each to a lobbying effort.
"We don't want the allocation based simply on end-product criteria. That gets government into making subjective judgments of what are the most important uses," Robert Morrow, an attorney for the group, explained.
The Process Gas Consumers Group is still studying its position on the bill. Representatives of the member companies met last Thursday and Friday without reaching agreement.
Support from the pipeline companies and local distributors is understandable - they believe the bill would lead to a greater supply of natural gas to provide to customers.
"We are definitely in favor of the bill. It is the best compromise that can be reached at the present time," said Steve Haracznak, manager of media relations for the American Gas Association.
Dow Chemical Co., a petrochemical firm that uses large amounts of natural gas, opposes the bill because it does not go far enough toward deregulation.
"We are concerned about an orderly market," Jim Gentel of Dow explained. "As a large user we have no desire to pay more for our natural gas. But we support deregulation because it would lead to enhanced supplies and a more orderly market."
During the next few days, the delineation between supporters and opponents of the compromise natural gas bill should become clearer. Congressional staff members have been working on its final language and the bill is expected to be made public tomorrow.