Should Uncle Sam get out of the natural-gas pricing business?

When he was Ohio's freshman senator six years ago, Howard M. Metzenbaum made history as co-leader of the fierce opposition to the Natural Gas Policy Act, the bill that lifted price caps on some natural gas.

He and his allies pulled out parliamentary tactics never before seen in Congress to try to stop the legislation. It took a 37-hour session for the Senate leadership to maneuver around the delays and pass the bill.

Now the Democrat from Ohio is back on the natural-gas battlefield. This time he is opposing a Reagan administration-backed Senate bill that would gradually drop price controls for all natural gas. Senator Metzenbaum backs legislation to do just the opposite - extend controls and roll back prices.

Natural-gas decontrol would take money out of the pockets of consumers, he said, in a dialogue with the Monitor.

What would happen after natural-gas deregulation?

There's not much doubt in my mind that prices would rise very substantially. The consumers would pay the bill. The oil companies would become far richer.

Anyone who argues to the contrary either doesn't have the knowledge that is necessary, or is intentionally misleading the American people. There is a glut of natural gas now, and prices continue to go up. And so there's nothing to suggest that merely by deregulating the price of natural gas that prices are going to come down.

What do you say to those who blame regulations for keeping prices up?

There's nothing in the present law that requires prices to go up. The only thing that the present law provides is maximums, and so that anyone who, again, argues that the present law causes prices to increase hasn't read the law or isn't willing to be honest with the public as to what's in it.

Who would benefit from decontrol?

Twenty major oil companies in this country. There's no argument that they have the overwhelming majority of the old gas (which is now held at the lowest price levels by current federal law), and if the American people are going to wind up paying an additional $40 billion to $60 billion, depending on whose figures you use, then it's obvious that the oil companies are going to become . . . substantially enriched by passage of this legislation.

What would happen to supply after decontrol?

The EIA figures indicate that supply would be decreased. (A study released last May by the US Energy Information Agency says that gas reserves would decline slightly faster under decontrol.) Now, when we say EIA, we've got to be certain that we understand that this isn't a resource of information that's on my side. This is the resource of information that is a part of the Department of Energy which is pushing the Reagan administration bill.

You led the fight against the 1978 Natural Gas Policy Act (NGPA). How do you feel about that bill?

I feel like those that were advocating passage of that bill lied to us. They said prices would go up 8 percent per annum. I didn't lie. I was wrong. I said they'd go up 15 percent per year, and I was conservative because it's gone up 128 percent since that bill was passed.

What the industry has done is they've withheld their product until they got the NGPA passed. After it was passed, they uncapped their wells and let their gas flow just as we claimed they would. And I frankly have very little respect for the integrity of the people in this industry because I think that they were indifferent to their responsibility to the American people. Much of this natural gas is produced on public land.

What do you predict will happen to the natural-gas legislation you have proposed?

I would hope that Senator Baker would see fit to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate. I think if he brings it to the floor of the Senate that the administration bill will not pass. . . .

I think that they understand the political consequences if they pass that (decontrol) bill, because the Republicans and the Reagan administration will have to accept the responsibility for higher and higher gas bills.

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