Oil industry executives said yesterday that U.S. natural gas supplies are now so bountiful that they are launching a major effort to sell gas to new customers for the first time in years.
But embarrassed by the appearance of new gas supplies coming on the heels of congressional approval of legislation to raise gas prices, they bristled at calling the new supplies "a glut"
"We think this (glut) has misleading implications," said George H.Lawrence, president of the American Gas Association, an organization of gas pipeline and distribution companies. "We want to diesel the view that somehow this avaible gas supply came upovernight."
Nevertheless, Lawrence said, "We're going tobegin now to get back into the market."
Last week Lawrence described the current gas surplus as "a bubble."
Energy Department officials say there is a natural gas glut and the potential for a surplus that could last two or three years, depending on the rate of U.S.gas imports and whether industrial consumers will begin using more gas. And deputy energy secretary John O'Leary is now advising consumers that because of improved supplies, "it may be appropriate for those now using oil that can to switch to gas."
Oil industry executives and the heads of some natural gas companies concede in private that the appearance ofa natural gas glut now that the controversial natural gas legislation has been enacted by Congress creates a prickly image problem for the industry.
For years the industry has argued that higher gas prices are needed to increase supplies. Now that they have won higher prices, they say they have more gas to sell.
For the short term, Lawrence said, "Even if we have a slightly colder winter, our customers can be assured of a firm supply."
AGA said the new supplies now available for the industry's renewal sales effort are the result of expected new gas imports, the substantial decline in industrial gas consumption over the last years, and residential consumer conservation.
Lawrence and the AGA's new chairman, John Kean, offered a bullish view of natural gas' potential as a domestic energy source, saying gas could increase its annual share of U.S.domestic energy consumption by as much as 50 percent by the end of the century.
Kean, a New Jersey gas distribution company executive,said the gas industry has to overcome "regulatory constraints"-primarily state and local regulatory commission bans on adding new gas customers.
President Carter is expected to sign the natural gas bill which became the center-piece of the administration's energy program after Congress rejected the president's proposed oil tax, will result in increased gas supplies and higher oil industry profits than there would have been without the bill.
The gas measure will also increase consumer prices,
Asked whether the natural gas industry would respond to President Carter's patriotic appeal to hold down prices to the proposed voluntary inflation guidelines. Lawrence said, "We're very much in accord with patriotic appeals."
As for gas prices however, the former Exxon executive said, "Our companies are all regulated-guidelines don't apply to us."