President Carter's natural gas pricing legislation, already in perilous condition, is now hostage to a high-stakes argument over fine print.
Gas state legislators are insisting on a few hundred well-chosen words of definition that could translate into billions of dollars in additional revenue for natural gas producers.
From the other end of the issue, administration energy planners are trying to repair the eroding political support among nothern industrial users. Major companies such as U.S. Steel and General Motors, which the Department of Energy thought would be for the final legislation, are lobbying against it.
Time is running out. Some feel that if the differences aren't patched up by tonight, when the House leaves on its recess, there is no chance of passage before the November elections, given the crowded schedule in September and the certainty of a Senate filibuster on this bill.
The differences are not insignificant. One staff professional on a House committee roughly estimated that one definition the producer-state people are holding out for could add $8 billion to $2.6 billion to the revenue increase contained in the bill, an estimated $19 billion by 1985.
But Energy Secretary James R.Schlesinger Jr., having revived this ailing patient several times over the last year, is not giving up. His staff experts have been on Capitol Hill this week, trying to find the right legislative words to put the celebrated compromise together again.
It fell apart last week. In May, a slim majority of House and Senate conferees agreed in principle to the complex compromise that would split the difference between immediate deregulation fo interstate gas prices and continued regulation with a schedule of gradual price increases, the administration's original proposal. When the final legislative language appeared, however, all sides of the argument began finding omissions, exceptions, presumed errors or economic consequences they had not spotted in May.
Sen. J.Bennett Johnston Jr. (D-La.), leading advocate for the producers, delivered his demands to the House conferees, most of whom take a pro-consumer position. Afterwards, he announced he was dropping his support for the bill and returned to Louisiana to campaign for reelection.
From the other side, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a leader of the House conferees, fired back a few words at the producers. "I'm going to have a very hard time bending any further." he said. "They keep asking to give a little here and a little there and this and that. It does seem a little much."
Dingell and most of the House conferees were meeting again yesterday, however, going over proposed changes intended to reconstitute the compromise. "It's being widely advertised as being dead," Dingell said, "and I'm not prepared to accept that. Yet it seems every time we turn around we've got fresh troubles."
Notwithstanding his earlier comments, Dingell was reportedly urging his colleagues to accept a compromise version including at least partial concessions to the producers' position. Several members, however, declined to buy the package without further study.
The argument centers on an arcane issue called "non-price regulation," which is totally misleading because the outcome will affect the price producers can collect on vast gas acreage now committed to the interstate market.
Johnston and others insist that the original compromise included an understanding that a new definition would give producers more freedom from federal regulation in shifting from low-price old sales agreements to new and better ones.
House conferees insist with equal fervor that they never agreed to any thing like that. The change would mean that producers could shift some existing reservoirs to more lucrative sales, without going before the Federal Energy Regualtory Commission.
The argument was complicated because the Supreme Court ruled - one week after the House-Senate compromise - on a case that alters the assumptions. The court held that, once gas acreage is dedicated to interstate sales, the owner cannot switch to the more lucrative intrastate market without specific permission from the federal regulators.
Johnston and other pro-producer conferees, including Reps. Joe D. Waggonner Jr. (D-La.) and Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), want the final bill to undo that court decision. They are hearing from a lot of independent producers back home who think the compromise is a bad solution, in any case, because it adds regulatory controls over the intrastate market that do not exist now.
While administration officials try to straighten out that scrambled argument, they are simultaneously trying to persuade the other side - northern consumers of natural gas - that the measure is good for them, too. The White House and the Energy Department assumed that major industries of steel, glass and autos would support the bill because, while it raises gas prices, it promises an end to future shortages.
Many of those companies are not buying it, however. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is lobbying against it, alongside its traditional opponent, organized labor, which opposes the higher prices for homeowners.
Many industrial lobbyists were originally allied with the oil and gas producers, gas pipelines and distributors in pushing for total deregulation, but some corporations are now skeptical that the compromise will guarantee the additional gas supplies to protect them from hard-winter shortages.
They also don't like the higher prices. One Chamber of COmmerce official explained: "Two years ago during the shortages, some things that may be coming back to haunt them. They said they were willing to pay anything to get reliable supplies. They're willing to pay more - but not pay anything."
One of the most devastating critiques of the measure came from Charles J. Cicchetti, chairman of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, who urged Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D-Wis.) not to sign the compromise bill because it "would be an economic catastrophe for Wisconsin's industry, result in a loss of jobs and create economic hardship for residential gas consumers,"
Cicchetti's analysis concluded that a typical homeowner in Wisconsin "could be paying as much as a few hundred dollars each year more for gas heating," but that industrial users also would suffer because the measure still includes favorable access to industries located in the southwestern states where most natural gas is pumped.
The administration, including President Carter, has been on the telephone to Wisconsin for the last week, vigorously rebutting Cicchetti's analysis, trying to persuade him that he is wrong and should write again to Reuss, endorsing a revised bill. So far, Reuss has declined to sign the compromise and, without him, it cannot be brought to the floor.
Meanwhile, some conservative Republicans such as Sen. Clifford P. Hansen of Wyoming and Rep. Clarence J. Brown of Ohio are arguing that producers will be better off under the status quo - with no legislation - than they will be if the compromise is enacted. They are urging Republicans to oppose the Carter bill enmasse and try again later for total deregulation.
Brown argues that a regular price increase, based on the existing regulatory process, is overdue and should be handed down by the Federal Energy Regualtory COmmission in a matter of months, once the bill is killed by Congress. That price for new gas, he asserted, should be in the range of $2 to $2.20, which is roughly what producers would get immediately under the legislation.
Hansen said, "We think there is greater incentive for producers under the present system and greater assurance of price, particularly for the little guys."
Despite all these arguments and opponents, the Carter measure still has a powerful factor arguing in its behalf, pushing weary legislators toward some sort of agreement. After 15 months of bargaining and blustering on this subject, many senators and representatives want, most of all, to settle the isue, to give the president a key part of his energy package and be done with the arguments, once and for all.