The attack on the USS Stark and the administration's plan to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers through the perilous waters of the Persian Gulf should rekindle the debate concerning America's energy future. These recent actions make it clear that the West remains vulnerable to events in this volatile region of the world. This country must accelerate the development of alternatives to gasoline -- methanol is the front-runner -- or suffer the economic and military consequences of its dependence on this unstable fuel supply.

Over half of the oil consumed in the United States is used in cars, buses, and trucks, and by the mid 1990s over half of our oil will be imported. At today's consumption rates, converting just 10 percent of U.S. cars to alternative fuels would reduce our oil imports by 800,000 barrels per day -- comparable to what we imported from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq last year.

Policies to stimulate domestic oil production will at best offset further declines. Reducing oil imports through an aggressive program to promote use of alternative fuels represents a constructive step toward lasting energy security.

Gasoline and diesel fuel are not only susceptible to the influence of Persian Gulf politics, they are also the primary culprits in our harmful urban smog, particularly ozone pollution. Improved air quality would be an important additional benefit of a conversion to methanol.

The major auto companies view methanol -- an alcohol that can be made from natural gas or coal -- as the fuel of the future. Hundreds of methanol-fueled vehicles are in daily operation in the United States and other countries. Drivers at the Indianapolis 500 use methanol for its high performance and safety, and it also burns more cleanly than gasoline.

To move beyond mere demonstration, we must break the "chicken and egg" cycle that prevents mass production of methanol vehicles. Manufacturers will not make a commitment to full-scale production of methanol cars until consumers will buy them. Consumers won't buy them until mass production makes the price competitive and there are conveniently located service stations to serve them. And service stations won't sell methanol fuel until Detroit puts cars on the road ready to use it.

The challenge is to escape from this cycle and to begin the transition to methanol now. Two modest but important incentives can help.

First, exempt methanol from any additional fuel tax that Congress might enact for deficit reduction. The exemption should be large enough to attract consumer interest in this alternative fuel, but it need not be permanent. Revenue losses early on would be small because it would be five years before a methanol car line would be designed and produced. When methanol reached a certain market share, say 5 percent, the incentive would no longer be necessary and could be removed.

Second, modify the existing fuel efficiency requirements of federal law to create an incentive to manufacture methanol-fueled cars. The fuel efficiency of a methanol car should be calculated only on the basis of the gasoline portion of the fuel -- a mixture of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline. The car would thus receive a six-fold increase in its miles-per-gallon rating compared with a gasoline-powered car, helping a manufacturer achieve the required corporate average fuel economy for its whole fleet.

An interim step on the way to methanol cars is likely to be dual-fuel cars which can run on either gasoline or methanol. For these cars, a modified fuel efficiency incentive would be offered. We are introducing legislation aimed at giving American auto makers an inducement to produce both methanol and dual-fuel cars.

These incentives could apply to other non-oil-based fuels such as ethanol and compressed natural gas, as well as methanol, to allow the market to choose the most appropriate fuels. The likely contribution of ethanol will continue to be in the form of gasohol, a clean, high-octane blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. Compressed natural gas will probably make its contribution in trucks, buses, urban fleets, and other specialty uses; this is so because of the costs of converting cars and service stations.

America will eventually have to convert to alternative fuels. The question is whether we will make the switch with an expensive, crash program after the next oil crisis or will have the foresight to alleviate that crisis by beginning the conversion now. Let's not look back a decade from now and see this as an opportunity squandered. Jay Rockefeller is a Democratic senator from West Virginia. Phil Sharp is a Democratic representative from Indiana.