FOR REASONS no one completely understands, one potentially major energy resource has been largely ignored in the debate over the right mix of fuels for the coming decades. We are referring to the several types of natural gas known collectively as unconventional gas. That unmemorable name of refers to the unusual geologic deposits in which this gas is found, including such unfamiliar types as tight stands located in the Rockies and geopressurized methane reserves around the Gulf of Mexico.

Assuming a price equivalent to $23.50 per barrel of oil (already surpassed by escalating OPEC prices), the administration estimated last summer that somewhere between 5,000 quads and 65,000 quads of such gas could be recovered in the United States. The estimate is so broad because there has been little exploratory drilling in these reserves and because several uncertain economic assumptions have to be made to arrive at a guess of how much of the total can be recovered at a given price. Nevertheless, since the country's total annual energy consumption is 75 quads, even the lowest estimate amounts to 70 years of the country's total energy needs -- a pretty staggering number, to say the least.

The technology for extracting some types of unconventional gas already exists, though there is much room for improvement. But it is well enough understood for the Department of Energy to have predicted that these reserves could yield the equivalent of four million barrels of oil a day by 1990 -- double the amount of the most optimistic predictions for synthetic fuel production, at a lower cost and with fewer environmental hazards. Of all the fossil fuels, for example, synthetic fuels contribute most to the carbon-dioxide buildup in the atmosphere; natural gas the least.

With all these attractive qualties, why does unconventional gas need government help in entering the marketplace? The answer is that it shouldn't; but two related government policies--heavy subsides for other competing energy sources, such as synthetic fuels, and an artificially low price for natural gas -- could prevent, or seriously delay, its development. Before completing its consideration of the president's energy proposals, particularly the Energy Security Corporation to promote the development of synthetic fuels, Congress should therefore make sure that, in the rush to do something about energy, it has not unwittingly set up a system that will inhibit the production of an at least equally promising resource.