Natural gas: Will Congress act before the snow flies?
Who would have thought that Congress would actually get around to drafting compromise legislation on a natural gas decontrol bill? Particularly in the spring and summer months, when most families throughout the United States have turned their heating systems off and opened up windows and doors to cool breezes? Committees in both the Senate and House are now hard at work on a number of proposals that could eventually remove existing wellhead price controls.
Congress is on target in taking up the natural gas pricing issue at this time - and with all due speed. Sunshine and balmy days may be common enough in the weeks and months ahead, but the chill of winter will come soon enough. This is the time to act - and not only because of the weather. Next year is a presidential election year, a year when lawmakers are reluctant to consider controversial legislation such as natural gas price decontrol.
There is a legitimate need to resolve the pricing issue. Last winter, it might be recalled, many householders found their gas bills jumping sharply, even though temperatures were above normal in many localities and demand was down. But because of technical factors, such as take-or-pay provisions in existing contracts, pipeline companies were forced to buy high-priced gas whether they needed it or not. What would happen this next winter if weather conditions were to be more ''normal'' and demand went up? Would prices once again take off?
Without attempting to analyze all the various decontrol measures now before Congress, three factors deserve consideration:
* The existing decontrol process, now set by the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978, should be left largely untouched. Under the act, all ''new'' gas (post- 1977 gas) will be decontrolled on Jan. 1, 1985. Leaving this process alone will enable industrial and residential users to rely on a gradual decontrol process.
* If lawmakers decide to decontrol ''old'' gas (gas discovered before April 1977), there should be a phase-in process over a period of time, such as the seven-year period now being discussed in the Senate. Under a compromise proposed by James A. McClure and J. Bennet Johnston of the Senate Energy Committee, prices on some deep wells would be phased down over time, while prices on old gas would also be phased up over time. Such a trade-off would protect consumers from sudden hikes at the marketplace.
* Finally, lawmakers must not be reluctant to resolve the issue of take-or-pay provisions. Both an administration-proposed bill in the Senate and a Democratic-backed bill in the House would restrict such provisions.
Can a gas decontrol measure actually be on President Reagan's desk this year? Most political analysts still maintain the obstacles are formidable. But Congress should roll up its sleeves and surmount them - before summer is behind us and those gas heating systems have to be turned back on.