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Grass-roots groups fight decontrol of natural-gas price

They pull into town in an aging station wagon rented from a company named the Ugly Duckling, eat a 3 p.m. supper at Avanti's ''fast service cash 'n' carry,'' and fan out into Peoria's neighborhoods.

Mostly young and dressed in blue jeans, they go door to door, introducing themselves as members of the Illinois Public Action Council (IPAC), a citizens' group working on behalf of consumers, and then ask the same basic question: ''Are your gas bills too high? Could you afford to pay more?''

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The answer is almost always the same here, where the heating season is long, and natural-gas prices have more than doubled since 1978. Residents smile grimly and shake their heads over utility costs.

''I can't afford them right now,'' a Peoria widow tells canvasser Vicky Sipe.

Miss Sipe makes her point: ''We're working to keep price controls on natural gas so the price won't go up,'' she says. ''The oil companies are trying to get all the controls taken off natural gas. When that happens, natural gas goes sky-high.'' IPAC needs money and supporters for the fight, she says.

The resident readily signs a petition but says she can offer no money. Most of the neighbors on her block of bungalows and duplexes sign, too; a few give small donations.

This scene is repeated almost daily in Illinois communities, as IPAC tries to meet a goal of 3,000 doors a night in their crusade against decontrol of natural gas as proposed by the Reagan administration. They are stepping up activities because both houses of Congress are now working on natural-gas legislation, and key votes could come next month.

From big oil and gas companies, to farmers who use fertilizer made from natural gas, to utilities and pipeline companies, there are many vested interests in the decontrol debate. But groups such as IPAC are a new and growing factor.

These ''new kids'' on the lobbying block are often idealistic activists from a range of ages and backgrounds. Miss Sipe, a former theater worker, says she decided to try to change American society after a trip to Germany where she met antinuclear protesters. She is now canvass director for IPAC's Champaign, Ill., office.

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Co-worker Ellen Heine began as a news reporter in Chicago where she became so concerned about toxic waste that she joined IPAC, which is active on that issue as well. She now earns less than half her former salary of $18,000.

''I've seen problems in society a long time,'' says Frank McNamara, another IPAC canvasser and a recent college grad with a liberal-arts degree. He likes the work because it's ''giving people the power they don't know they have.''

The IPAC workers are far from alone. Their group is one of nearly 300 in a national umbrella group, the Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition (CLEC), formed in 1978 by labor, senior-citizen, and low-income groups. Among its aims are keeping energy prices down and breaking up what the coalition calls the ''concentrated economic power in the energy industry.''

The coalition has set aside this weekend as ''Gas Protest Days,'' with events ranging from a march in Buffalo, N.Y., to meetings with Congress members and more neighborhood canvassing. Not only does the campaign seek to defeat decontrol, but it also aims to urge Congress to pass a bill that would roll back natural-gas prices and install new controls.

While the door-to-door campaign is growing, it is difficult to judge how effective the coalition will be.

A congressional aide who followed the long, bitter debate when the current Natural Gas Policy Act passed in 1978 says, ''The biggest difference between now and '78 is the consumer and distribution companies are more organized.'' She notes that, despite the complexity of the issue, consumers who call her office seem to understand it. ''They don't just call up and say 'Lower my gas price.' ''

In Illinois, IPAC claims credit for helping to sway US Rep. Edward R. Madigan , a Republican, against decontrol of natural gas.

IPAC has had less success with Peoria's Rep. Robert H. Michel, leader of the House Republicans, who favors phased-in decontrol. While IPAC has generated some mail to Representative Michel, a lobbying blitz sponsored in August by big oil companies has flooded his office with 3,000 pro-decontrol postcards. The Natural Gas Supply Association, through a computer mailing, asked selected Peoria-area residents to distribute the pro-decontrol postcards to friends last month. The effort was billed as a ''grass roots'' campaign.

Such industry-inspired lobbying irks Miss Sipe. ''It's not grass roots,'' she says. ''It irritates me, as someone who's involved in going out and talking house to house.''

IPAC and its umbrella group, CLEC, say that natural-gas prices will go up at least 50 percent if controls are dropped.

However, even members of the coalition concede that they cannot foretell the exact effect of decontrol on prices. ''Although you can never read the future through a crystal ball, our projections have been right,'' says Gail L. Siegel, researcher for CLEC. However, supporters of decontrol generally predict that prices would be the same, on average, or only slightly higher than they are now.

''I don't see how they won't'' go up, says Miss Sipe. ''Every year there is less of it (natural gas). If the price is not controlled, it's going to go up.'' She adds: ''In the Midwest we are a little frightened about it because we are the end of some long pipelines.''

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