While American consumers continue to get ripped off by energy price gougers, two government agencies have been quarreling over which should be prosecuting the hundreds of cases that have been brought to light. Meanwhile, Big Oil happily holds the bureaucrats' coats and keeps on ranking in illicit profits.

The battle -- between the Justice Department's civil division and the Energy Department's general counsel's office -- involves overchanges and other rip-offs which, if properly prosecuted, could net Uncle Sam an estimated $10 million in fines from the corporate freebooters.

But Justice and Energy lawyers apparently spend more energy squabbling over whose turf a case falls on than in trying to pursue the crooks who are swindling the public.

The heart of the problem is a 1978 "memorandum of understanding" that Congress forced on the Justice Department. It gave the Energy Department's litigation unit jurisdiction in certain cases, thus setting the stage for a continuing struggle with Justice's civil division.

After two years of infighting, the situation in Energy's litigation unit has reached the point where its 29 attorneys are referred to as "the boat people." Since January 1979, 14 of the unit's attorneys left for less turbulent turf.

The potential for trouble was spotted early by then-assistant attorney general Barbara Babcock, who wrote her boss Griffin B. Bell: "There is a constant problem with the DOE memorandum in that nearly every significant case that arises involves a squabble at some level to determine which agency will handle the case. This is a morale problem whichever way the issue is resolved, and takes time away from pressing litigation demands."

Babock's successor as head of the civil division. Alice Daniels, has admitted to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that "many of the problems described in Ms. Babcock's memo continue today."

So jealously has the Energy Department guarded its litigation turf that Justice claims it can't get cooperation from Energy even in cases that have been assigned to the civil division.

Another indication that all is not cake and ice cream at Energy's legal unit is an internal management review dated March 25. Among "symptoms of distress" the inspectors found were "unhappy, frustrated people," a "general state of disorganization," missed deadlines and the heavy staff turnover.

Needless to say, while Tweedledum and Tweedledee battle over who stole whose bureaucratic rattle, Big Oil keeps on gouging the public.