THE FREE market is all the energy policy that this country needs, the administration repeatedly says. But reality keeps awkwardly intruding. The latest example is the decision at the White House to postpone any attempt to take price controls off natural gas. That's a pity, for natural gas production is one area of energy policy in which a free market would work most usefully.
The rhetoric has been admirable. Last week Secretary of Energy James B. Edwards was in New York, enthusiastically explaining to an audience of skeptical utility managers the great things that the Reagan administration has in mind for the electric power industry. Among other things, he said, "We have to deregulate natural gas, as we did oil earlier this year, to create a free market in energy. . . ."
Meanwhile, back at the White House, things were sliding in the opposite direction. The president and the Republican leadership in Congress have now decided not to do anything about deregulation legislation this year. As a practical matter, in view of the 1982 elections, that means next year as well.
The reasons for deregulating gas prices are as valid as ever. It's grotesque to keep gas cheaper than oil, and only encourages waste. The administration's reason for backing off is, apparently, only to avoid another messy and uncertain wrestling match in Congress. The congressional leaders have told Mr. Reagan that he can't get deregulation without a tax on the sharply rising returns to the producers. But Mr. Reagan has promised the producers that he would veto a tax. That pledge could no doubt be forgiven, if anyone in the administration wanted to take the time and trouble to show the less sophisticated elements of the gas industry where its real financial interests lie. But that's more time and trouble than the White House evidently cares to invest in an issue that also sets the various regions of the country, and economic interests, fiercely against one another. The administration, struggling to retain some degree of control over its economic program, is not interested in launching a bill that it considers an expensive and exhausting diversion.
That's another pity, for a stiff tax on deregulated gas--similar to the present windfall tax on oil-- could raise perhaps $20 billion a year. That's the kind of new revenue that the administration now urgently needs. Freeing the price of gas, and taxing it, is infinitely preferable to fiddling around with nuisance taxes on beer and telephone calls.