At what was described as an acrimonious meeting, President Carter told consumer advocates yesterday that he will not reverse his decision ordering a gradual decontrol of domestic oil prices and urged them to give up hope of changing his mind on the issue.
Emerging from the White House after the meeting, several of the most outspoken representatives of consumer groups denounced Carter's decision and promised to wage a fight for the extension of controls in Congress.
Describing the president's action as "irresponsible," Kathleen O'Reilly of the Consumer Federation of America said the decontrol order was "the most inflationary, anticonsumer decision made in the White House this century."
"He said you are not going to change my mind, period," said Ellen Berman of the Consumer Energy Council. "I think that's right, and it will be up to Congress to change his mind."
The meeting, held on the day that the decontrol order began to take effect, was part of a concerted effort by the White House this week to deal with the growing criticism of administration energy policies and the president's decontrol decision.
On Thursday, Carter Discussed the same subjects with oil company executives, who later told reporters they had urged an end to "finger-pointing and name-calling" on the question of gasoline prices and supplies.
Just the opposite appears to have been the theme of yesterday's meeting, during which the most outspoken consumer advocates told the president that decontrol will not help the country's energy situation and urged him to abandon the policy.
"I never heard anyone talk to Lyndon Johnson the way they talked to Jimmy Carter today," said television personality and consumer advocate Betty Furness.
Attending his first meeting at the White House, Jonathan Lash, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, described the atmosphere as "acrimonious" and said he was shocked by it.
Lash's organization and other environmental groups represented at the meeting support decontrol if it is tied to a strong tax on the oil industry. Lash said it was not clear that even a majority of the 27 persons who met with Carter opposed decontrol. The strongest opposition, he said, is centered in the consumer groups.
According to several participants, Carter countered the criticism of his decontrol decision by urging the various groups to support the administration's proposed "windfall profits" tax on the oil industry. Warning that some oil companies are encouraging the hope that controls will be reimposed in an effort to defeat the tax, the president described Mobil Oil as "the most irresponsible corporation in the country" for stating it would forgo phased decontrol if a portion of the tax is not imposed, they said.
At the end of the meeting, according to Lash, Carter told the group he understood their opposition and asked them "to understand that I've made my decision." This was followed by two or three more strong antidecontrol statements.
"It's the last thing he heard," Lash said.
From the meeting, the president boarded a helicopter and flew to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., where he was to spend last night and part of today with 10 House Democrats and their spouses. The subject of energy, and the opposition of House Democrats to decontrol and to a standby gasoline rationing plan that was killed by the House earlier, was a likely dominant subject for the overnight gathering.
But is remained unclear what, if any thing, would result or was expected to result by the White House by this week's activities. Some of the consumer representatives were clearly skeptical of White House intentions. Berman, speaking of yesterday's meeting, told reporters, "It was apparent it was just public relations."
The consumer group representatives said they would seek a congressional extension of controls, a measure Carter has predicted will never be approved by the Senate.
"We're going to fight like hell to continue controls," said Robert M. Brandon, the Washington director of the Citizens/Labor Energy Coalition. Brandon said that over the summer "the anger of the public can be demonstrated to Congress."
Berman said the administration is suffering from " tremendous credibility gap" on the energy issue, resulting in "a tremendoous lack of confidence in the leadership we have."