The crisis in the Persian Gulf imposes on the United States another reminder of our economic vulnerability to the Arab states. The alternatives to regional dominance in the oil industry include an increase in oil trade with Latin America.

Although Venezuela and Mexico are the principal Latin American players in the oil market, several other countries possess extensive and largely untapped oil resources. For example Ecuador, which is an OPEC member, has exploited the oil in its territory in only a limited fashion, primarily due to the oil glut existing in the world market for the past several years. Nor have Venezuela and Mexico made maximum use of their reserves. Low prices have to a large extent eroded profitability of what could otherwise be a rapidly advancing Latin American industry.

The crisis forces us to reevaluate Latin America's role in the world oil market. An excellent opportunity exists for the United States to encourage Latin America to increase oil production and to provide technical support for such an increase. Equally important is the economic incentive the United States can provide by negotiating with the oil producers for a beneficial economic package that takes into account the overwhelming national debts of Latin American states. Specifically, transactions where the United States negotiates percentage reductions of debt along with monetary exchanges would be beneficial to U.S. purchasers as well as Central and South American producers.

The time to focus on mutually beneficial endeavors designed to develop markets for Latin America's rich resources, including but certainly not limited to oil, is now. Not only will the United States benefit from the goods produced, but a constructive means to reduce the debt crisis of our neighbors to the south will be established. C. ELIZABETH ESPIN Arlington

An article on oil exploration {news story, Aug 13} downplayed the potential oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The 3.2 billion barrel figure presented is the average estimate developed by a Department of the Interior team in 1986. I was a member of that group. Our study was based on limited geophysical data and regional geology, not on wells drilled in the refuge. We also presented a smaller estimate and a lower-probability appraisal exceeding 9 billion barrels. All such estimates are admittedly questionable.

Since 1986 an onshore exploratory well and more than five offshore wells have been drilled just north of the refuge. The critical data from these wells were obviously not available to the estimators in 1986. Oil patch scuttlebutt is that the exploratory results were favorable and that the DOI estimates may be conservative. Objectively, however, the refuge's recoverable oil potential is not known at this time. It may be insignificant, it may substantially exceed 9 million barrels. This huge upside potential is the logic driving the continuing pressure to explore the refuge. It is by far the most promising source of domestic oil.

It is evident that oil is not discovered by estimators, by media coverage or by words but by drilling. With geological and engineering facts in hand the nation can intelligently debate the issue of permitting oil production in the refuge. Without such data, the debate is just opinionated noise.

Availability of the refuge's oil to the American economy would not preclude, but rather augment, renewed conservation efforts. Our dependence on imported oil during the 1990s requires both lower domestic demand and greater domestic production. MAX J. TAVES Reston