As US Output of Oil Slips, Imports Hit Record Level

But cost of replacing American reserves falls sharply

LAST month, petroleum imports surpassed 10 million barrels a day for the first time ever and broke the previous imports record set 17 years ago.

Yet United States petroleum consumption is 1 million barrels a day lower today than it was in 1977, even though the population is 20 percent larger and production of goods and services is 50 percent greater, the American Petroleum Institute reports.

The gain in energy efficiency was offset by an even larger decline in United States oil production of 1.5 million barrels a day - hence, the rise in the import level.

The trends in imports and consumption boosted total imports of crude oil and refined products to a record 58 percent of domestic deliveries, the petroleum institute says.

``Basically, we're producing less,'' says institute spokesman Joe Lastelic. In fact, were it not for the major oil fields in Alaska, American production since 1977 would have declined by 3 million barrels a day.

The bad financial times for the oil industry may have come to an end, regardless of the trend in US production, notes Victor Burk, the managing director of oil and gas industry services at the Arthur Andersen consulting firm in Houston.

In its 15th annual survey of data from 250 oil companies, including 28 companies that are headquartered outside the United States, Arthur Andersen found improvements in three important industry indicators:

* Companies increased their exploration and development spending in the US last year by $1.5 billion. That was a gain of 11 percent over the 1992 level, the lowest in a decade.

``Many companies believe attractive opportunities still exist in the US despite government legislation and regulations limiting access to the most promising areas,'' Mr. Burk says. He cites new technology as one factor.

* Arthur Andersen highlights the rate at which companies replace their American production of oil and natural gas by new discoveries and other sources.

*The rate rose to 64 percent last year - the highest since 1990 - and it increased to 69 percent for natural gas.

* The cost of replacing United States reserves fell to its lowest level in five years.

One year does not make a trend, Burk admits. But steady improvement in these three indicator areas may mean that the year of 1992 was the oil industry's ``low point.''

Even so, he foresees more industry restructuring - in other words, ``layoffs.'' Conoco Inc., which is based in Houston, announced last week that it would shed 370 employees in exploration and production.

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