Step on the Natural Gas

Natural-gas supplies in the continental US are at their lowest levels since 1976, when recordkeeping of national reserves first began. And the amount of gas going into storage is almost one-third below the average of the past five years. Yet the popularity of gas in both homes and electric utilities continues to rise - often with government's encouragement.

Reserves on the East Coast have dropped to as low as 14 percent of capacity - another record. If a heat wave strikes this summer and drives up the use of gas-generated electricity, the supply problem could get worse - driving up costs.

Indeed, the shortage is not expected to ease this year, according to Bush administration officials. One analyst predicts that next winter the average household heating bill could be $220 higher than last year.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says there are only "limited opportunities" to boost supplies over the next 12 to 18 months, and longer-term solutions are needed.

Perhaps sensing a possible Democratic campaign issue, the administration plans to meet with the National Petroleum Council later this month. (For his reelection, President Bush needs votes in those states heavily dependent on gas for both home heating and industrial purposes.)

Mr. Abraham rightly notes that the emphasis should be on conservation, energy efficiency, and fuel-switching. California, for instance, by taking conservation measures after its recent crisis, lowered its energy demand by hundreds of megawatts.

Oil and gas companies, of course, want restrictions on exploration and development eased so they can tap into known natural-gas reserves. They also don't mind the high prices; those are an incentive to explore. And they want Congress to shorten the time it takes to get a drilling permit. Congress should act quickly to take the steps needed to keep up reserves of this vital energy source. As Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has noted, the natural-gas market must be allowed to respond better to customer demand. Reliance on any single type, or source, of fuel has already proven problematic.

Clearly, some very prudent short-term steps emphasizing conservation are needed. In the long term, however, the nation must have a serious debate on energy sources and supply, with all types of energy - coal, oil, gas, nuclear, solar, wind, and others - on the table.

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