Decontrol natural gas . . .
The Reagan administration, so the news reports have it, is seriously considering legislation that would accelerate the decontrol of natural gas. Such a measure makes sense on both economic and political grounds provided - and this would seem to be reason enough for hastened deregulation - faster decontrol is coupled with a windfall profits tax.
The fact is that, come early 1985, something like one half of all natural gas will be decontrolled anyway, under provisions of the Natural Gas Policy Act signed into law by President Carter back in 1978. Only ''old'' gas, i.e., gas from wells producing before 1977, will remain subject to regulation. But consumer prices for the ''new'' gas (from wells producing after that date) are expected to spurt upward to reach levels of world oil prices. That being the case, why not seek to cushion what will likely be the shock of decontrol in early 1985 by pressing ahead with phased-in decontrol under a faster timetable?
The main argument against hastened deregulation, of course, remains the massive costs that will be faced by consumers. By one measurement, accelerated decontrol will mean upwards of between $300 billion and $400 billion in new gas bills. But at the same time, it must not be overlooked that consumers of natural gas continue to pay artificially low prices for their energy source.
Lifting controls would stimulate exploration and new gas finds, spur conservation efforts, and help reduce oil imports. It is instructive to look at what happened after oil deregulation when the public quickly adjusted to the price hikes and there was a reduction in the rate of total energy growth.
In enacting speeded-up deregulation lawmakers should consider two factors:
* Whatever decontrol formula is worked out, the public should be protected as much as possible from sharply higher prices during the winter months of 1982-83. Energy Secretary James Edwards, for example, has proposed that a 1982 bill not take effect until Jan. 1, 1983, which would at least be several months into the cold-weather heating season. Other administration officials, however, are pressing for an early 1982 startup, made retroactive from whenever a bill is passed next year. But since something on the order of half of all US homes are heated by gas, it would seem that some period of ''warning'' on higher prices is justified.
* The second factor, as noted above, would be enactment of a stringent windfall profits tax. Most gas producers (and they are often large oil companies) are already awash in money that can be used for purposes of exploration and production. So they won't need all of those new dollars resulting from deregulation. A tax, moreover, would have the propitious political effect of providing the government with ample new tax revenues, as much as $20 billion to $25 billion a year, that could be used to help offset large federal budget deficits in 1983 and 1984.
The administration, and Congress, should press ahead with deregulation of natural gas.