The natural gas pricing bill that seemed close to final congressional approval after several near brushes with death appears to be in big trouble again.
The fragile agreement worked out by a closely divided House-Senate energy conference to remove federal price controls from newly discovered gas by 1985 threatens to come unstuck because the agreement in principle appears different to some members now that it has been reduced to 170 pages of specific legislative language.
The Senate has been forced to delay consideration of the conference agreement until next week at least because the necessary majority of House and Senate conferees have so far refused to sign it.
Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) thinks it wouldn't raise prices fast enough during the next seven years.Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D-Wis.) fears it would give producers more than he intended. Members from producing states contend it would discriminate against intrastate gas. They also fear that a recent Supreme Court decision may dry up the intra tate market and should be overturned by adding language to the gas bill.
The issue of price controls versus deregulation involves billions of dollars and has eluded congressional solution for 24 years. But Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who has led the year-long effort to find agreement, insists the issue can be resolved this year.
It is a major part of President Carter's energy program, though he requested continued regulation at higher levels. To the extent that is higher price produces more gas it would reduce reliance on foreign oil, which is the main purpose of Carter's stalled energy package.
One of McClure's major objections to the finished product is that it appears the annual price increases permitted up to 1985 would fail to raise the price to a free-market level at the moment of deregulation. He had inisisted on this.
Members from Louisiana and other producing states are concerned about a Supreme Court decision of two months ago which some construe as perhaps drying up the supply of gas for consumption within the state where produced. The court ruled that once gas from a tract if dedicated to the interstate market, gas from that land can never be sold for intrastate consumption. A staff member said Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) wants Congress to override this decision in the gas bill. But that would mean reopening the bill, and no hearing have been held to form a basis for action.
An attempt by Jackson to meet with Senate conferees yesterday to try to get their signatures on the agreement was posptoned until next week because several conferees were out of town.
Meanwhile, a coalition of labor and citizen action groups that claims to represent about 20 million people announced what it called an "all-out" lobbying effort to scuttle the nature gas measure.
International Association of Machinists President William W. Winpisinger, chairman of a recently organized Citizen-Labor Energy Coalition, called the pricing compromise an "insidious private tax that takes money from the pockets of the people and puts it into the over-bulging coffers of the oil and gas industry." It is, he said, "the worst scandal on the American energy scene since the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s."
Winpisinger said the coalition, which represents more than 40 groups ranging from football players and teachers to farmers and senior citizens, is organizing a grass-roots lobbying efforts aimed at killing the measure and leaving existing regulatory procedures intact.