The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation Tuesday to lift the remaining price controls on natural gas, which accounts for one-quarter of the nation's energy supply.
Before a voice vote to send the bill to the House floor, several panel members said the decontrol would help ease the nation's growing dependence on imported energy without raising consumers' heating bills."I think gas prices are going to fall" in the short run if the legislation is enacted, said Rep. Billy Tau-zin, D-La.
Prospects for full congressional approval appeared better than at any time in this decade. Worries about price rises had blocked attempts to end the controls.
Industry officials and analysts say the legislation could result in slight declines in consumer prices, but any immediate effect is likely to be small because most of the controlled gas already sells at prices below the federally set ceilings.
The House measure is strongly supported by all segments of the natural gas industry and by the Bush administration, which views price decontrol as a way of promoting natural gas as a cleaner-burning alternative to oil. President Bush has expressed concern at the country's growing reliance on imported oil.
Some consumer groups, however, say ending limits on how much producers may charge on about one-third of the nation's gas supply will help the industry without tackling problems of greater concern to the 48 million households that use gas.
"Simple natural gas decontrol can do no good for the residential ratepayer," said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America. "It probably won't do much harm, but there are a lot of other things that could be done" to protect consumers from the effects of rules changes.
Cooper's group and other consumer advocates say that while market forces are keeping natural gas prices low, Congress should be focusing more attention on supply issues. One such problem, called "take-or-pay," is forcing consumers to help pay off long-term supply contracts taken by pipelines in the late 1970s when, unlike today, supplies were tight and prices were rising.
The average price for residential users in 1987, the latest year for which official government estimates are available, was $5.56 per thousand cubic feet, down from a peak of $6.12 in 1985. In 1979 the average price was $2.98 per thousand cubic feet.
The price decontrol bill was introduced by Rep. Philip R. Sharp, D-Ind., and co-sponsored by 22 of the 23 members of a House Energy subcommittee that approved it last week. No action has been taken yet on a similar bill in the Senate.
The House billcalls for price decontrol to be completed by Jan. 1, 1993. In the interim, price controls would be lifted from gas not subject to a contract on the date of the legislation's enactment as well as certain other gas.
Sharp in past years had opposed lifting price controls on gas.