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To Avoid Long Lines for Gas, Tap Alaska's Oil Reserves

IT is high time that the United States wakes up to its increasing dependence on imported oil.

During the 1973 Arab oil embargo -- and the long gasoline lines that we faced -- the US was producing 9.2 million barrels of oil each day. Oil imports were 36 percent of our daily needs. Today, our nation produces only 6.6 million barrels of oil a day. We are dependent on foreign imports for more than half of our daily needs.

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Department of Energy projections show our dependence will grow to two-thirds by 2000. The congressional Office of Technology Assessment has estimated that by 2010 we may be as much as three-quarters dependent upon foreign oil. Last month, the Commerce Department issued a report that our national security was at risk because of our dependence on imported oil.

For nearly 20 years our national policies have discouraged our domestic energy industry from looking for and producing energy from American soil. Some, in the name of environmentalism, have even rejoiced in the choke hold these policies have placed on the production of oil and natural gas from US reserves, preferring instead to import energy.

Besides preventing production from public lands, particularly from promising offshore deposits, we have thrown a withering array of environmental, tax, and bureaucratic roadblocks in front of our industry. This helps explain why the number of drilling rigs in operation has fallen from nearly 4,000 just 14 years ago to 771 last year, causing employment in the energy industry to fall by 600,000 workers since the early 1980s.

Besides cutting jobs and reducing tax revenues, these policies have other painful effects. Last year, our balance of payments deficit -- our trade deficit -- reached $166.3 billion. About a third of that deficit -- $56 billion -- came from our need to buy energy from overseas. In 1994, the US sent $153 million daily into the treasuries of other countries.

That money could have stayed home producing jobs and tax revenues in America with little risk to our environment and wildlife. Instead, we continue to increase the amount of imported oil, oil that is moved to the US in foreign tankers that may not meet America's higher safety standards.

A classic example comes from Alaska's Arctic Coast where we are prevented by environmental opposition from searching for oil reserves from the last spot in North America likely to hold a huge petroleum find.

GOVERNMENT estimates are that if only a tiny part of the Arctic coastal plain were opened to oil exploration, a footprint as small as 12,500 acres (the size of the Dulles International Airport), development could occur with no harm to the environment or its wildlife. And if the expected deposits are found there, we could save the nation the cost of importing roughly $180 billion in foreign oil while funneling $125 billion in taxes into federal and state treasuries. We have clearly learned how to work with the Arctic environment, as proven by our successful experience at Prudhoe Bay, the finest oil field in the world.

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A Washington Post editorial March 30 cited another reason why we need to produce more oil. Another shortage ''would have a horrendous impact on transportation and commuting, as anyone who remembers the last one in 1980 can testify.''

Another argument for increasing domestic production is that our need to import energy is ballooning our trade deficit and undermining the strength of our currency, thus threatening our standard of living. Observe the recent plunge in the value of the dollar. It is caused in part because our balance of payments deficit is now so large that America must pump more dollars into the hands of foreign traders. The more than $1 trillion of US Treasury bonds and dollar bank accounts held overseas by foreigners is a direct result of our growing dependence on foreign resources (and our necessity to import capital from foreign nations to finance budget deficits and national debt).

Producing more energy in the US would help offset these problems. We would create good-paying American jobs, increase federal tax revenues, cut our trade deficit, and diversify our sources of oil supply. That could only help reduce the negative impacts of a worldwide supply disruption.

The Clinton administration has shied away from energy independence, instead drifting toward energy dependence. While the administration has moved to support a lifting of the antiquated ban on the export of Alaska oil -- a ban that prevents America from producing about 100,000 barrels per day of known oil reserves -- so far the president has taken few other positive steps to increase energy production.

It's not that he doesn't have the authority to act. He has plenty of authority under existing law.

There is much that can be done to promote production of domestic energy. It must be done now or our children will inherit a lower standard of living through a weakened economy and foreign oil dependence. They will sit in long gasoline lines or be cold at night after some future boycott or disruption caused by war.

We do have a choice. We are blessed with significant domestic energy reserves that we can safely produce using American ingenuity and technical expertise.

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