How could Hobart Rowen {op-ed, Dec. 31} have lived through the past two years and still fail to see the dangers in dependence on foreign oil? While it's true that as long as oil prices are low our trade deficit will be reduced, experience has shown how volatile oil prices actually are, and how serious an effect the swings in oil prices can have on our economy.

If oil prices do plummet to $5 a barrel, as Mr. Rowen projects, the United States could substantially reduce its trade deficit -- even if it drastically increases oil imports. This is essentially what happened in the oil price decrease of 1986, but the results were disastrous. Low prices made many U.S. wells uncompetitive, and domestic production has dropped by more than 600,000 barrels per day. Meanwhile, American consumers and industry increased their use of oil. Imports made up the difference between increased consumption and decreased production, increasing by 1.2 million barrels per day in 1986 and another 300,000 barrels per day last year.

When oil prices rebounded in 1987, they did not rise high enough to revive domestic oil production or to significantly discourage increased consumption. They rose just high enough to help drive our trade deficit to record high levels. Our foreign oil bill, through October, jumped to more than $30 billion. Most analysts agree that our inability to reverse our trade deficit was a major factor in last fall's stock market crash.

Like a roller coaster ride, oil prices let us relax for one minute only to take our breath away the next. Mr. Rowen would have us sit back and enjoy the ride, but complacency about future energy supplies is an attitude our society cannot afford. Oil will continue to grow in importance, especially as reserves outside the Middle East are diminished. We should use the breather we have from high oil prices to secure alternatives to its use, such as nuclear and renewable energy sources, before we hit the next bump.