ALARMED by the Persian Gulf war, some energy experts are urging the United States to cut its reliance on Middle East oil and to look for energy supplies closer to home. The Western Hemisphere already has major oil exporters, like Venezuela and Mexico, and experts say that with foreign investment, those nations could substantially boost their output.
Colombia, Ecuador, Canada, Argentina, the US, and possibly Brazil could also increase hydrocarbon output to make this hemisphere self-sufficient in energy within a decade, experts say.
Robert Horton, chairman of the British Petroleum Company, says, ``The more oil the US can procure from outside the Middle East, the easier you may feel.''
Mr. Horton observes that the Middle East will probably remain unstable for many years. For security reasons, he says, the US should follow the rule: ``If you cannot get all of your oil at home, then get it close to home.''
Alan Stoga, managing director of Kissinger Associates Inc., a New York consulting firm, says: ``This hemisphere could be self-sufficient over the course of the '90s. There is enough oil and gas in Venezuela, in Mexico, in Canada, in Argentina, and elsewhere that if you draw a big circle around the Americas, ... it could be energy self-sufficient.''
Yet some analysts are skeptical. Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, speaking at a recent energy conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said:
``It is unlikely that we are going to be able substantially to reduce the dependency of the United States and the industrial world on the Persian Gulf. And that means that the security of the Persian Gulf will for the foreseeable future remain a serious problem for us.''
George Quincey Lumsden Jr., director of oil market developments for the International Energy Agency, wonders if reliance on regional supplies would distort the oil markets. If so, it could lead to higher prices and inefficiencies.
Oil industry sources say the US currently draws just over half its imports from four nations in the Americas - Venezuela (16.4 percent), Canada (12.8 percent), Mexico (10.7 percent), and Colombia (3 percent).
Overall, however, the Americas have an oil deficiency at current levels of production. Increasing the output of Venezuela, Mexico, and other nations will require significant investments from the industrialized nations.
International energy consultant Alfred Monk says a quiet trend is already underway to make the Americas a zone of ``relative self-sufficiency.''
Mr. Monk says that two other zones of self-sufficiency also appear to be forming gradually: one centered in Japan and East Asia, the other focused on Europe and the Middle East.
Monk says the American area ``will primarily include Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Venezuela.... By the year 2000, the oil and gas consumption and supply of these four countries could come fairly close to being in balance, and any oil imports to this region would be marginal.''
One advantage of this arrangement for the Western Hemisphere is that energy sufficiency, and the trade it creates, would complement the region's efforts to solve other daunting problems, Monk says. Among those problems are immigration, drug control, and the balance of payments.
If Mexico earns extra billions selling oil and natural gas, for example, it will reduce pressures for young Mexicans to slip illegally into the US in search of jobs. If Colombia boosts petroleum output, its citizens will be less dependent on drug-trade income.
Mr. Stoga agrees. ``If this question of regionalization was simply a question of energy security, it seems to me that history suggests ... that we would do very little about it,'' he says.
But energy security may be just the caboose on the train. Immigration, economics, and other considerations, such as effort to create a North American free trade zone, may pull the energy sector along with it.
Ideas of regional energy security are pooh-poohed by some oil industry insiders, however. One senior oil executive, who asked not to be identified, doubted the viability of regionalism.
``Canada doesn't have enough oil to be of importance'' for additional supplies, the executive says. ``Mexico worries American industry'' - because its reserves of oil are still unknown, and because of political instability.
Venezuela offers good prospects for more output, but that will happen even without regional planning, the executive notes. Already, Venezuelans are binding the two nations' oil industries together by buying into US refining and marketing systems.
The oil industry would prefer sticking with the current system. The US is building up its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which now contains about 600 barrels of oil, to perhaps 1 billion barrels for use in emergencies, encouraging companies to pump more US oil (particularly offshore and in Alaska), and protecting major oil producing countries abroad with US military force.