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DON’T EXPORT SHRINKING OIL SUPPLY

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At a time when the United States is becoming more and more dependent on foreign oil imports, it hardly seems wise to start exporting oil from the previously restricted Alaskan North Slope oil field.

Yet a bill passed by the House of Representatives recently and supported by the Clinton administration would make nearly one-fourth of U.S. oil production available for overseas sale, mainly to Japan and Asia.While there would be some short term profits from this action, such exports would ignore the realities of America's oil consumption and the shrinking share provided by domestic producers.

In 1994, according to the American Petroleum Institute, the United States imported more than half the oil it used - the first time that has ever happened. And the scales are going to continue to become more out of balance in coming years.

Back in 1973 when Arab oil exporters imposed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States, gasoline prices skyrocketed, lines formed at service stations and Americans were jolted to discover how much they depended on foreign oil and how vulnerable they were to foreign oil producers.

In response to the economic shocks of that discovery, Congress passed a law prohibiting the export of U.S. oil supplies from the rich oil producing regions of the Alaskan North Slope. Those supplies were seen as an irreplaceable domestic reserve in case of future crises. Limited production of North Slope oil currently serves the West Coast market.

Over the years, Americans opted for smaller, higher-mileage cars and sought other ways to reduce consumption of petroleum. The success was spectacular. Even in 1994, Americans used 800,000 barrels a day less than they did back in 1977. Yet imports were 109,000 barrels a day higher than in 1977.

The math is clear. Domestic oil supplies are shrinking. Last year, domestic production was 6.6 million barrels a day, the lowest level in 40 years. Gradually growing foreign imports are making up the difference.

This clearly leaves America vulnerable to foreign oil producers. Oil is the economic lifeblood of the nation and it increasingly is in hands outside the control of the United States. At some point, those foreign producers will be able to dictate their own price and cripple the U.S. economy in ways that would make 1973 seem like child's play.

Under such circumstances, opening Alaska's North Slope oil fields for exports seems to ignore long-term U.S. interests in keeping and protecting a domestic supply of oil for future energy crises that surely will arrive sooner or later.