Frustrated by delays in the Commerce Department, officials of Dresser Industries today said they are ready to take their case against President Reagan's Soviet natural gas pipeline sanctions to federal court.
Dresser officials also said the Dallas firm had been told by Commerce that there had been no change in the sanctions, despite a statement Wednesday by Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan that the order would be sharply narrowed.
On Thursday night Dresser's Washington lawyers petitioned Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence J. Brady, asking him to rule by Tuesday on their motion to set aside the sanctions, and warning that if he failed to act they would bypass normal administrative procedures and go to court.
"I think they're slow-walking us," said Ed Luter, Dresser senior vice president. "I don't know why, but it's costing us money."
Lawyers for the company complained that the government had thrown up "a host of procedural obstacles" that have needlessly delayed the matter.
Commerce Department officials denied that there have been unnecessary delays in hearing the case.
"We're trying to get it done in as orderly a process as possible because we're trying to treat it as seriously as possible," said B. Jay Cooper, press secretary to Secretary Malcolm Baldrige. "But everything is being done as quickly as possible from this end."
On Aug. 25, the Reagan administration imposed sanctions on Dresser's subsidiary, Dresser France, for violating the president's embargo on supplying U.S. technology for the Soviet-West European natural gas pipeline after three compressors for the project were shipped to the Soviet Union by Dresser France.
Dresser has argued that it ordered its French subsidiary not to ship the compressors, and therefore it did not violate the president's embargo. It said action by the French government requiring the shipment caused the problem.
The sanctions -- also imposed against a second French firm, Creusot-Loire -- bar the export of any U.S. equipment to the two companies.
Regan said Wednesday that in their "original pristine form" the sanctions "were a little too sweeping" and would be limited to oil and gas equipment.
But Commerce officials said today that no decision has been made on whether to narrow the sanctions.
"The Department of Commerce enforces the sanctions," Cooper said. "There has been no change in the orders to Dresser France or Creusot-Loire. That's a decision that has not been made."
The argument between the Commerce and Treasury departments appeared to reflect an interagency squabble over turf and not a disagreement over administration policy.
Further sanctions, in the limited form outlined by Regan on Wednesday, are expected to be ordered against John Brown Engineering, a British firm that is preparing to ship turbines to the Soviet Union for the pipeline project. The British company built the turbines under license from General Electric Co.
Dresser's decision threatening to take its appeal to federal court reflected growing frustration with the Commerce Department's handling of the case.
"We have pressed very hard before the hearing commissioner on our motion to vacate the order," said James R. Atwood, an attorney for the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, which is handling Dresser's case. "There seems to be no prospect for a hearing."
No date had been set as of today, according to Commerce officials.
Luter said the company likely would go back to U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Flannery to seek a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the sanctions.
Flannery rejected a similar motion by Dresser on Aug. 24, two days before the sanctions were issued, saying the company had not proved it would be "irreparably damaged" by the government action.
Luter said today that Dresser lost about $500,000 because of delays in shipping the compressors and that for the fiscal year ending Oct. 31, the sanctions will cost the company about $3.5 million.
If they are in effect indefinitely, the company would lose about $12.5 million in the next fiscal year, Luter said.
Dresser's worldwide sales last year totaled $4.6 billion.
Dresser decided to file its latest motion after a hearing commissioner said he could not hear the case quickly.
"The rules do allow for this sort of direct appeal," Atwood said. "What is unusual is the urgency of the matter."
Commerce's Cooper said he guessed "it's logical to think" the department was dragging its feet, "but that is not the case."