WASHINGTON — Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), saying he is "deeply troubled" by growing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, Wednesday urged Commerce Secretary William C. Verity Jr. to order a study of ways to control imports.
In a letter to Verity, Bentsen asked the secretary to act "without delay" on a Dec. 1 petition by independent oil firms for a study to determine whether oil imports are a threat to national security.
"The purpose of the study, of course, is to lay the groundwork for presidential action to control oil imports," Bentsen said in the letter.
While neither the letter nor the industry petition mentioned an oil import fee, Bentsen and other oil state lawmakers have urged such a fee as a way to raise the U.S. price of oil to encourage increased domestic production.
But an import fee is opposed by the Administration. An energy security report released early this year by Energy Secretary John S. Herrington called it a "drain America first" program that would reduce domestic reserves and lower long-term energy security.
The report to President Reagan also said economic gains accruing to the domestic oil industry from an import fee would be outweighed by higher costs for consumers and other industries.
In his letter to Verity, Bentsen said oil imports now are "edging toward the 50% mark" and that Commerce Department figures showed that they had risen to 12% in the third quarter.
"Such a trend poses grave risks to national security," he wrote. "In regard to oil imports . . . our country is playing with fire."
Bentsen also warned that a sudden cutoff of Middle East oil could not be quickly countered by increased domestic production.
"The domestic industry cannot turn around on a dime," he said, adding that the "lag time between discovery and production of oil can be several years."
That, he said, would be "a far longer time" than oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would last in an emergency.