Midway between the major oil companies with a world to explore and independents risking everything on their next hole stands the Houston-based Nortex Gas & Oil Company, which has earmarked $200 million to search for more natural gas in 1982.
Nortex president Willis F. Ammentorp sees his company's 29 percent increase in spending over last year (by comparison, Exxon Corporation plans to spend $13. 5 billion) as both a sound investment and the logical response to America's rapidly changing economic and political climate.
In his 20th-floor office atop one of Houston's shiniest new buildings, he says that:
* America is shaking itself free from 20 years of government overregulation.
* One immediate result will be ''rapid increases in natural gas prices.''
* Consumers will respond to doubled or tripled gas heating bills by ''going to smaller houses just as we have gone to smaller cars.''
* After the initial shock, consumers and the economy as a whole will benefit.
Mr. Ammentorp has little sympathy for either the major oil companies or the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. But he does not lay all of the blame for the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent energy price escalation on greedy oil companies or Arabs. Instead, he argues that decades of sincere but misguided US government attempts to protect consumers backfired. ''In their attempts to protect consumers,'' he explains, ''one administration after another wasted precious resources and prevented a lot of exploration for new resources.''
''If prices had been allowed to come up naturally, maintaining a reasonable relationship with other costs,'' Ammentorp adds, ''the Arab countries . . . would never have been able to band together. . . .''
Now that oil prices are being set largely by free-market forces of supply and demand, he expects a smoother road ahead for consumers and producers.
Ammentorp sees a period of soaring prices as natural gas also is freed from regulation.
As a petroleum geologist, Nortex president, and a vice-president of Nortex's parent energy company, InterNorth Inc., he says he is confident that higher gas prices will lead to major new exploration and discoveries.
Ammentorp says that many known US gas fields will yield additional supplies while other highly promising areas in the lower 48 and in Alaska ''have barely been scratched.''
He isn't overly concerned with whether natural gas deregulation comes in 1985 , as scheduled, or more quickly. Either way, he sees steady shift toward a smoother system that will benefit the country as a whole.