THE LAST ATTEMPT to write rational and fair price controls for natural gas has turned out spectacularly badly. Prices keep rising in the midst of a dramatic surplus. Cheap gas goes unsold while expensive gas flows at a pleasant profit to its producers. The spectacle evokes mixed feelings, as the Reagan administration now begins the slow and difficult process of enacting something better. Just about everybody agrees that reform legislation is necessary. But it's hard to find any three people who agree on precisely what direction it ought to take.
President Reagan sent to Congress yesterday a bill that deserves to be taken seriously as at least a point of departure. It gives the pipelines an opportunity to renegotiate or even to break the take-or- pay contracts that are responsible for much of the current rise in prices. It promises the gas producers a competitive market and freedom from controls. It offers consumers the protection of a cap on the prices that pipelines can pass through to their customers. It's an elegant and intelligent compromise, very much worth discussing further.
But nothing about gas pricing is simple. The malfunction of the present law, enacted in 1978, is largely the result of its authors' misjudgment of the rise in energy prices. Much of the industry, not to mention its customers, now fears that the present bill similarly misjudges falling energy prices. Suppose a year or two from now oil suddenly swings around and gets more expensive, once again drawing gas prices upward with it. The pipelines are fearful of being caught between a competitive market in the gas fields, at one end of their lines, and the federal cap on the prices it can pass along at the other. Producers are uneasy about the prospect that, if prices start up again, Congress might lose its enthusiasm for free competition in the gas fields and reimpose controls. Many of the consumers' organizations, having seen the rise in prices under the present regulations, mistrust the regulators.
In American politics it sometimes happens that a bill is so bitterly contested by so many deeply divided interests that clear and efficient legislation becomes impossible. Natural gas pricing is a conspicuous example. Over three decades of price controls, the rules have become steadily more turgid and intricate in character while becoming more perverse and unsatisfactory in effect. At present there is no majority visible in Congress for any bill. Nobody wants to live with the present law. But it's far from clear that the president's alternative, or any other, can actually be passed.