IT will be a serious threat to America's coastal environment if, because of more reliance on imported oil, tanker traffic along US shores continues to mount. Despite new cleanup techniques, we still underestimate the magnitude of oil spills and their implications. Our appetite for foreign oil has increased. The US imports nearly 50 percent of the oil it consumes, compared to 32 percent in 1985. Imports by the year 2000 are expected to reach 60 percent. The result of this dependence on foreign oil is that 350 million gallons of oil now arrive by tanker daily - or 40 supertanker loads. As tanker traffic increases, so does the possibility of mishaps.
Although the oil industry has done a commendable job of improving its safety record in recent years, tanker accidents still occur regularly. 1989 US Coast Guard records show 904 oil spills in or near US waters, resulting in the loss of more than 12 million gallons of oil. Many of the spills were near some of this country's most valuable and vulnerable shorelines - salt marshes, sandy beaches, and coral reefs. Just since October, according to Oil Spill Intelligence Report, a newsletter in Arlington, Mass ., tanker spills have occurred in California, Oregon, Michigan, Georgia, New York, Louisiana, and Texas.
Oil pollution from tanker accidents may become more serious. At present, virtually all the 8 million barrels of oil we import each day is brought in by foreign tankers. Many are aging tankers, with a dismal history of groundings and equipment failures. Last year Lloyd's Register listed 603 working tankers that were built at least 20 years ago.
PARTICULARLY important is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that President Bush signed into law in August. The measure expands liability for oil spills into US waters. Deadlines for equipping new tankers and barges with double hulls are mandated, and timetables are imposed for double-hulling or mothballing existing vessels. Stricter navigation rules are included, as are on-duty hours of tanker crews.
While such measures may help prevent oil spills, they mainly reduce the hazard. They don't deal with the source of the problem: the increasing amount of imported oil. For this reason, any real discussion of energy policy must focus on breaking our foreign oil addiction.
Instead of putting most of our energy supply in one basket, we should rely on a diversity of resources. There needs to be a major shift toward natural gas, clean coal technologies, a new emphasis on next-generation nuclear power plants that are safer and cheaper, renewable energy resources like solar photovoltaics, and a new rationale for conservation.
We need a new rationale for conservation that captures the imagination of the public. Conservation need not entail ``doing without.'' It should make greater use of technologies that are more energy efficient. It is particularly important to design more fuel-efficient cars.
The issue is not a choice between conservation and production. Nor is the choice between coal and nuclear, or natural gas and renewables. We need them all. We also need both a strong economy and environmental protection.
The threat to our shores from the proliferation of oil tankers is not the only motive for achieving energy self-sufficiency. But if major oil spills follow the dismal pattern of recent years, many beaches and environmentally sensitive wetlands stand in danger of being polluted. And it is not hard to imagine how dismay with our mishandling of the environment could become, as in some quarters it already has, another taunt against the ``wasteful society.'' The fundamental remedy is to ship less oil and pursue a balanced energy policy.