- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

As we dig deeper into our pockets to pay for the escalating cost of gasoline, it is clear we have failed to learn over time that our dependence on oil imports has created a critical national problem. This problem is costly for consumers hit hard by the cost of gasoline and home heating oil and is also a threat to our national security.

It has been almost 30 years since the first oil crisis struck this country. Many of us still remember the long lines at gas stations and the inconvenience imposed by the curtailed supply of petroleum products. At that time, the United States imported only 36 percent of its supply, and we had our first opportunity to remedy the situation. We did not take advantage of that opportunity.

Today, we are more reliant on imported oil than at any time in our history. More than 56 percent of our country's petroleum consumption is met by foreign imports.

It is way past the time to act on this situation and change things. The Senate is ready to act. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott recently introduced legislation aimed at addressing American dependence on foreign sources of energy.

We must take several steps to prevent future disruptions that not only bring inconvenience but directly threaten our national security.

First: We must establish a National Energy Policy. The key element of that policy would be to establish a limit on the percentage of petroleum imports that we are willing to accept.

Second: We should offer tax credits for exploration and production along with incentives to companies in the form of tax credits for marginal wells when prices decline. This would stabilize supply by letting our independent domestic producers understand that the federal government supports their efforts to produce more crude oil while protecting them from the price fluctuations that have occurred over the past year, both high and low.

Third: We must allow exploration and production of petroleum in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). This is one of the largest untapped oil fields that exists in the United States, and the sheer volume of crude that can be extracted from this area would alleviate much of the supply shortage that we are currently experiencing. It could be managed in such a way that environmental impacts would be minimal. Consider that during the past eight years, demand for oil in the United States has increased by 14 percent, yet domestic production has decreased by 17 percent. It is clear that this gap was going to be filled by imports. The level of imports could be significantly reduced if ANWR were opened up to exploration and production.

A 1998 U.S. Geological Survey study estimated that the ANWR coastal plain could have up to 16 billion barrels of oil. That's the equivalent of 30 years of Saudi imports.

Fourth: Federal and state policy-makers must do more to promote an increase in the use of natural gas. Abundant supplies of this fuel exist, and according to a recently released study by the American Gas Foundation, the resource base of natural gas is actually expanding. This study, "Fueling the Future," estimates that the supply of this fuel is larger than it was in the early 1990s, despite the fact that the nation consumed more than 150 trillion cubic feet of gas from the resource base during the past decade.

The greatest potential for converting oil consumption to natural gas lies in the industrial sector, where technological improvements in natural gas boilers offer customers lower operating costs, higher productivity and better compliance with strict environmental regulations than aging, oil-consuming equipment.

Once again, we have an opportunity to learn from history. Let's take advantage of that opportunity and act now. Failure to do so would not only be stupid, but could threaten the future security of the United States.

Sen. James M. Inhofe is chairman of the Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Service Committee.

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