The Reagan administration plans to retain tight controls on the sale of high-technology oil and gas exploration equipment to the Soviet Union despite its announcement yesterday that it is lifting restrictions on exports of giant pipelaying tractors to Moscow, administration sources said yesterday.
The exception was made for the pipelaying tractors, which cost about $500,000 each, because they are readily available to the Soviets from other countries, especially Japan, do not represent high technology and cannot be converted to military use. Moreover, Commerce Department spokesman B. Jay Cooper said, the pipelayers were "not properly classified among products related to oil and gas exploration and production."
They have required export licenses since 1978, when then-president Jimmy Carter slapped controls on sales to the Soviets in respose to the jailing of two dissidents, and have been included in the subsequent tightening of restrictions in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Moscow's pressure that led to the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981.
Administration sources emphasized yesterday that there are no moves to lift restrictions on the sale of high-technology oil- and gas-drilling equipment. Special drill bits and down-hole pumps for deep exploration and extraction, for example, are believed to represent technology that should be denied the Soviets on national security grounds.
Nonetheless, the move to lift the licensing requirements on the pipelaying equipment triggered a policy battle between Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger on one side and Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige and Secretary of State George P. Shultz on the other.
Weinberger strongly opposed lifting the requirements, and national security affairs adviser William P. Clark was called to California, where President Reagan is vacationing, to mediate the Cabinet dispute.
One question reportedly put before the president is whether the American people would perceive the lifting of restrictions on pipelaying equipment as a softening of the administration's anti-communist stance.
In the end, however, administration officials decided that the pipelayers--basically heavy-duty tractors with hoists that lay pipes in trenches--were too easily available to the Soviets to warrant continued restrictions on their export.
"The restrictions posed no burdens on the Soviets. To the extent that any burden was imposed, it fell on the back of an American company. The Soviets don't need to buy from the United States," said an administration official.
The Soviets used to buy most pipelayers from financially strapped Caterpillar Tractor Co. of Peoria, Ill., but switched as a result of American export restrictions to a Japanese firm, Konatsu Co., which now supplies 80 percent of Moscow's pipelayers.
Caterpillar lost a $90 million Soviet order in January because of the licensing requirement. While lifting the requirement may help future sales as well as the sale of spare parts, Caterpillar spokesman Doug Crew told the Associated Press, the company has no guarantee that the Soviets will now buy those 200 pipelayers.
The Soviets--in the midst of constructing a giant pipeline to carry natural gas from Siberia to western Europe, a project the administration tried to stop--have purchased 1,500 pipelayers in the past year.