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North American cooperation: where does US fit in?

Closer ties between Canada and Mexico raise suspicions among some US oil industry leaders and politicians. The worry is that these two countries may use their vast petroleum reserves to take advantage of an energy-hungry United States.

These suspicions increased last fall when the Canadian government tightened controls on US companies operating in Canadian oil fields. This week, the oil industry is watching closely to see what emerges from Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's visit to Mexico.

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But at least one oil industry expert is hopeful that Canada and Mexico will coordinate their energy policies -- and that the US will join with its neighbors in working out ''a North American autarky for energy.''

This autarky, or self-sufficiency for the continent as a whole, would have to be worked out on Canadian and Mexican terms, says petroleum geologist Albert W. Bally, simply because Canada and Mexico have the oil and gas reserves. But drawing up an overall energy policy to mesh US needs with Canadian and Mexican supplies, he insists, offers the best answer to America's energy problems.

Dr. Bally has come up with his suggestion after 27 years of exploring the world's land and seas for Shell Oil. Now, as chairman of Rice University's geology department in Houston, he hopes to provide the ''neutral ground'' needed to convince the American public, government, and oil industry that they must work together to solve ''our permanent energy crisis.''

Ultimately, Bally's objective is a joint US-Canada-Mexico energy commission, modeled on the St. Lawrence Seaway Commission.

Canada and Mexico, he says, will be under pressure to work with the US because of their shared interest in economic stability for the continent as a whole. As well, he points out, developing the vast Canadian and Mexican reserves will require vast investment and a large market: two ingredients the US can provide.

Bally's suggested solution is based on years of fieldwork both throughout North America and abroad. Beginning in Europe and then Canada, Bally discovered major oil fields and major exploration concepts in his days as chief geologist and then senior exploration consultant for Shell. He remains confident that the latest techniques drawing on geophysics and lasers will uncover new oil reserves. But, he says, improved tools and recovery methods can't solve the problem of energy shortages because ''we're always fighting against dwindling reserves.''

Bally argues that there is an urgent need to recognize that energy supplies are limited and to agree on priorities.

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Bally calls on environmentalists, government, and industry to give up their adversarial positions. No one deserves a seat at the conference table on energy problems, he says, ''if they are only interested in saying that big oil is bad or that big goverment is bad.''

As a first step, Bally is telling members of his geology department that ''if they have environmental feelings, these have to be expressed in terms of data.''

He admits that preserving the environment demands ''keeping the oil companies' feet to the fire to see that they have clean work habits.'' But this Dutchman schooled in Switzerland says that ''messiness has nothing to do with the oil business as such - it's just an overall American tendency.''

Oil exploration itself, he says after his own years of opening up major oil fields in the Canadian wilderness, ''doesn't disfigure the landscape or disturb the bears or chipmunks.''

Wilderness areas should be ''opened up to exploration,'' he says, because ''it is important to find out whether or not oil is there.''

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